This article on the Smithsonian web site makes me think about courage. According to a new book by Richard A. Serrano, at least some of the men who claimed in the 1950s to be veterans of the Civil War…weren’t. Some of them were children, too young to go to war, when the shooting stopped. Others weren’t even born, but came along soon enough after that they could plausibly claim years later to have served.
When I stop to think about it, it isn’t that great a surprise. The War Between the States was the defining conflict of the nineteenth century, at least for Americans. One of the defining conflicts in our nation’s history. For some, it must have seemed a bit of a cheat to have been born in the 1860s; they grew up on war stories, surrounded by veterans, most of them post-traumatic, some of them scarred or horribly maimed–and most of them were heroes to everyone who knew them. Some of those kids of the 1860s went into the Army in the 1880s, trying to make a name for themselves out west, but the conflicts against the Cheyenne and Apache and Sioux and a hundred other tribes just weren’t the great crisis that their fathers and older brothers had faced. It would not have been at all unusual for a young man of that age to daydream about the glory he might have earned but for the accident of his birth.
And when that young man learns that some of the men he thought of as heroes really weren’t, that Uncle Frank actually hid in a hole or played dead or pretended to be sick so he wouldn’t have to go back out on the field for the second day at Shiloh, or that Jeff accomplished more at the card table in camp than he ever did on the battlefield, or that Cyrus supplemented his Army pay by stealing horses–well, any young man who was already feeling cheated might start to think he deserved to be a hero more than they.
And when times get hard, years later, and there’s nobody around to say otherwise because most of the real veterans have died, what does it hurt for that man to produce a yellowed old service record and start collecting a veteran’s pension? Who is hurt if he starts telling his grandkids stories about the war, stories he heard from all those old soldiers–except now they’re his stories, because the old soldiers, the other old soldiers, aren’t there anymore? And bit by bit, he becomes the hero he always knew in his heart he could have been.
It only costs him his soul, because he knows the truth. It only costs him his grandkids’ admiration when and if they ever learn the truth.
Better, I think, more courageous, to be the hero of your own small story than to pretend to be the hero of someone else’s big one.