When I was 18 my favorite song in the whole wide world was David Bowie’s 1977 hit “Heroes.” According to Bowie, he saw two teenagers in West Berlin kissing by the Berlin wall and was drawn to the juxtaposition of desperate love against this dark symbol of the cold war. It included the lines: “I can remember/standing by the wall/and the guns shot above our heads/and we kissed as though nothing could fall.”
He portrayed the lovers as heroes, which I found profoundly moving. I still do, 28 jaded years later. I thought of this when I interviewed the wise and compassionate Karl Marlantes, and this decorated Vietnam War Veteran said of killing another man, “The adrenaline’s going like mad – I never had a second thought about it. This guy’s gotta go.”
I would never ask the soldiers and firefighters and police officers, men and women who chose jobs that by definition put one in death’s path, to relinquish their heroic title and hand it to the two closest teenagers stealing a kiss. We will always be moved when people choose to act against their own self-preservation to help another, even if that other is thousands of miles away with no meaningful tie to the one risking his life other than a shared nationality.
But Marlantes would go on to say, “Whoever you just killed probably had a sister and a mother, and that starts to hit you. It might hit you a week after you do the killing or it might hit you 20 years after you do the killing—but when it hits you it’s devastating.”
Death always challenges us, whether we face it daily in our lives or not. Gifted as we are with our powerful imaginations, we all understand, theoretically at least, that one day this body we call ours will no longer walk, talk, or eat pancakes. And so this thing we call Death seems to be forever asking of us: Do I, Death, really matter as much as I seem to?
The soldiers, firefighters, and police officers would seem to say, “No,” in their own way, for if it did matter so, why risk it? Why risk the worst thing possible unless there was something greater at stake? Which is perhaps why Karl Marlantes thought of the sisters and the mothers of the men he’d killed.
It is hard to answer death with either more death or your own mere survival. It is hard to answer a thing with itself. Every day of one’s life, soldier or student, cop or criminal, we have but two choices before us—which why all heroes must choose love, as it is the only thing worth living for.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com