Monday, May 10, 2010

Man in the Breach

Most of my heroes are dead.  They exhibited their moral or physical courage in the days of yore.  It's just as well.  If I could go back in time and meet some of these individuals face to face, I might become disillusioned.  There's something about the mystique of death and the passage of time that shroud these biped mammals in a saintly cloak.  Think of past presidents.  Unless you're a bitter partisan type, you end up thinking of past presidents more fondly than when they were in office.  That we crave demigods and martyrs is not a mystery.  Such hero-worship even drives market place.  I watched Iron Man 2 this past weekend, yet another superhero movie in a seemingly endless supply!

One of my few living heroes is General Roméo Dallaire, commander of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Rwanda during the genocide.  Fate or corrupt bureaucrats placed him in an awful situation in the spring of 1994.  Once the Hutus starting slaughtering their victims in early April the Canadian general and his five-hundred troops did the best they could to protect innocent lives and provide an international presence.   Dallaire had even caught wind of an imminent massacre the previous January and sounded the alarm at the UN headquarters.  Kofi Annan, the future Secretary-General who at the time was in charge of Peacekeeping Operations, did not heed his repeated requests for troops and logistical support.  The Hutu killers murdered 800,000 people between April and June, including some hapless Belgian peacekeepers.

When you think of a hero, people larger than life who defied the odds in the name of some purpose greater than the status quo or who selflessly defended the downtrodden or a noble idea, what images does your mind conjure up?  I think of an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther defending his teachings before a formidable gathering of secular and ecclesiastical potentates at the Diet of Worms.  "Here I stand, for I can do no other."  I envision Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders charging up San Juan hill in the Spanish-American War.  I imagine the courage of Miep Gies hiding the Frank family from the Nazis.  But I also see a middle-aged man reeking of alcohol and lying unconscious under a park bench in Quebec.  A man who suffered from PTSD and tried to commit suicide.  A man who suffered from demons in the shape of men, Hutus to be specific.  Did the higher-ups in the United Nations suffer such moral agony?  Not likely.  But such are real heroes, the ones who risk their lives to help others and yet feel, when all is said and done, that they did nothing.  General Dallaire is such a hero.  And he hasn't forgotten the people of Rwanda.  Through his book, lectures, documentaries, and a movie about his experience he has brought awareness to the North American public about genocide abroad.