Spoiler alert: yes, I think the young men of Bomber Command were heroes – but let’s dig into it a bit and explore the concept of heroism...
Personally, I find that the word “hero” is a loaded one, and is one that we have overused to the point that it is in danger of becoming meaningless unless we are more careful in applying it. For example, after 9/11 it seemed everyone in uniform was suddenly a “hero” – I remember reading about a bus driver in Toronto who was deemed a hero for braking their streetcar in time to avoid hitting a stray toddler. Really? I have heard blood donors being referred to as “everyday heroes” - frankly, the hyperbole becomes numbing after a while. I remember the wonderful Pixar movie The Incredibles, where the evil genius, who has a jealous hatred of the Superheroes, creates tech that allows anyone to do the things that before only the “Supers” could do. His end game? “When everyone is a hero, then no one is a hero!” (Cue evil laughter).
I butted up against this concept of “hero” (often the code word “peace officer” was substituted in my workplace) many times during my time working for the Corrections Branch. Although working in a prison requires diligence, professionalism and courage, I found that some of my co-worker’s constant attempts to equate us with police officers (or even the military) were, in my view, embarrassing to us and disrespectful to police officers, who really did put their lives on the line when they went to work. It seemed to me that some of these efforts to artificially raise the status of Corrections staff to “heroes” amounted to puffery (what the airmen of Bomber Command would have referred to as “shooting a line”, a cardinal sin to them) and to me it was a sign of a kind of group insecurity – in my mind, we should have been proud of the work we did, and not attempt to ride on the coattails of the police or military, trying to bask in some of their reflected glory or status.
So, you ask, what is a real hero?
Well, over the years I came up with two criteria that, in my mind, had to be met to fit the bill.
1) A hero would have to put their own life at risk to save another. Returning a lost wallet or pulling an errant child away from a balcony railing is not heroic, it is just being a decent human being.
2) A hero would need to be unprepared and untrained for the specific task. Sorry firefighters, but you are trained, paid, equipped and well-prepared for what you do, you are not heroes. And I bet most of you would agree with me - you are professionals and I have the utmost respect for you and what you do for a living.
So, how do the young airmen of Bomber Command stack up against these two criteria? Well, I know for a fact that none of them would describe themselves as heroes – I have heard more than one WW2 veteran insist that the real heroes were the ones who didn’t come home. But regardless, I will throw my opinion into the ring.
There is certainly no question that they put their lives on the line – Bomber Command losses ran at 50%, and that is not counting the thousands who died in training accidents. Was their sacrifice to the benefit of others? I would argue yes. The breadth of Nazi savagery in WW2 is breathtaking and almost beyond comprehension. The well-documented extermination camps were just part of the Nazi murder machine – in far-flung parts of the Nazi empire, from the Greek islands to Ukrainian and Polish farms, to camps for Soviet P.O.W.s, to French and Norwegian villages the Wehrmacht and SS shot, starved, gassed and bludgeoned to death untold tens of thousands. Every day the war lasted, the slaughter of innocents went on. The “bomber boys” played a large role in ending the war as quickly as possible and finally bringing the madness to an end.
But weren’t the boys of Bomber Command prepared and trained for what they did? I would argue not. As I explained in The Job To Be Done, I don’t think the technical training that aircrew received in their respective tasks (navigating, flying an airplane, operating a wireless set etc) in any way prepared them for the horrors and terror, night after night, of their kind of war. Only camaraderie, commitment to the fight against Hitler and pure courage sustained them.
Yes, they were heroes, and we would do well to use the term more carefully, lest we diminish its power to inspire us.