Oh, how the mighty can fall. Modern societies, just like ancient cultures, need heroes. But those we elevate to heroic status—soldiers, sports figures, firefighters—don’t always merit the acclaim. Some heroes valiantly fall on the field of battle, but as scandals regularly demonstrate, there are many ways heroes can tumble from their high places, sometimes besmirching others’ reputations as well as their own.
The ever-lengthening list of toppled sports heroes (Aaron Hernandez, Oscar Pistorius, O.J. Simpson) should warn us against idolizing such figures. But it doesn’t. Before the 2011 revelations that stain his memory, Joe Paterno’s greatness was uncontested. In 46 seasons as head coach of Penn State’s Nittany Lions, Paterno racked up the most wins in college football, achieving demigod status at the gridiron-gaga university. But JoePa, as he was affectionately called, had sacrificed the welfare of children on the altar of his school’s glory. He’d known for years that defensive-line coach Jerry Sandusky was a child molester. Paterno’s failure to report Sandusky to the police after Sandusky had raped a 10-year-old boy in the Lions’ locker-room shower led the National Collegiate Athletic Association to void all Paterno-led victories from 1998 on.
Like Paterno, Lance Armstrong was revered for winning, and the profundity of his disgrace was magnified by the esteem in which he was held. After recovering from testicular cancer, the cyclist had accumulated an unprecedented seven consecutive wins (1999–2005) of the Tour de France. Armstrong consistently denied that he had engaged in illegal doping—until his televised 2013 confession to Oprah Winfrey. He too was stripped of his wins.
Sports heroes who fall from grace usually knock themselves off the pedestal. Lance Armstrong did so, piling the ignominy of lying on top of the crime of cheating by repeatedly and aggressively denying his use of banned performance-enhancing drugs. But literature and the performing arts have given us plenty of examples of a type of protagonist—the antihero—who has fallen from grace before his story rightly begins. Victims of circumstance and their own maladjustment, antiheroes just can’t win, and their only chance at “triumph” may be to embrace their destiny of failure. The antihero had a heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s, occupying center stage in the social-realist dramas of the British “angry young men” writers, including the gritty film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, based on Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 short story. The main character is reform-school boy Colin (Tom Courtenay), who demonstrates an uncanny talent for cross-country running. Unlike Armstrong, who did whatever was necessary to win, Colin snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s his only way to thumb his nose at his jailers—and though self-destructive, his action does possess a grim existential majesty.
In the public perception, a hero is an idealized figure, displaying unwavering courage, loyalty and moral fortitude. But heroes aren’t always gung ho, even in mythology. The Trojan War hero Achilles is such an interesting character in Homer’s Iliad in part because of his refusal to fight when he is desperately needed. With the reputation of a killing machine, he is the Greeks’ ace in the hole against Troy. But when King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, seizes one of Achilles’s war prizes, the princess Briseis, Achilles retires to his tent. While Achilles sulks, things go disastrously for his countrymen, and Agamemnon’s supplications—even his promise to return Briseis—cannot persuade Achilles to jump back into the fray. Only the death of his friend Patroclus motivates him.
Achilles’s insubordination and disloyalty to his team find rough parallel in Colin’s refusal to win the cross-country competition between his Borstal (reformatory) and an elite school in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Colin knows his victory would mean everything to his teammates and especially to the Borstal’s headmaster, who has groomed him for the event. But he willfully chooses not to cross the finish line, embracing his fate as antihero.
Ancient Greek armies had no “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The demigod Achilles, leader of the Myrmidon nation and greatest hero of the Trojan War, and his friend and fellow warrior Patroclus were tentmates, and commentators since classical times have believed them bedmates too. Whether sexual or comradely, Achilles’s love for Patroclus drives the plot of Homer’s Iliad: When Patroclus falls on the battlefield, Achilles’s prodigious grief compels him to exact pitiless revenge on the Trojans and particularly on Patroclus’s slayer, Hector. (The story of Achilles’s later death in battle by an arrow piercing his vulnerable heel comes from other, non-Homeric sources.)
If Achilles’s relationship with Patroclus was sexual, it may have accorded with the Greek custom of paiderastia—an erotic attachment between an older male lover (erastes) and a beloved youth (eromenos). But ancient Greek pederasty was in essential ways unlike the modern crime of pedophilia that indirectly brought down Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Pederasty was bound by social rules and based, at least ideally, on the youth’s consent. Though similarly age structured, pedophilia is vicious sexual assault, and pedophilic predators such as Paterno’s myrmidon Jerry Sandusky cruelly rob their minor victims of their innocence.
To be awarded a Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest accolade, an American serviceman or -woman must have demonstrated “intrepidity at the risk of life.” Homeric hero Achilles shares this battle-worn perseverance in the face of death, though he takes it to a dark extreme. When the wrathful warrior pursues Hector to the walls of Troy, he knows he’s courting doom. His horse—given the power of speech by the goddess Hera—has foretold of his death in battle, but that prophecy doesn’t give Achilles the least pause.
Such intrepidity isn’t limited to warriors or demigods; ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs can demonstrate the same heedless valor. After two jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, New York firefighters, police officers and other first responders entered the burning towers despite overwhelming danger. More than 400 died, about 2,000 were injured—and their efforts, though unable to stop the buildings’ collapse, kept the civilian death count to about 2,300. As the magnitude of their sacrifice became known, firefighters especially were elevated to hero status. A 2002 NYFD recruitment campaign that adopted “Heroes Wanted” as its slogan presented an uncomfortable and poignant juxtaposition of heroism and martyrdom.
Those we choose as heroes are as likely as anybody to have dirty little secrets—they are, after all, human. But the disclosure of those weaknesses can be the Achilles heel that dismantles a hero’s glory. General David Petraeus, commander of the Multinational Force in Iraq from 2007 to 2008, was widely credited with turning the Iraq conflict around, averting all-out civil war. Petraeus enjoyed such universal acclaim that when President Obama nominated him for CIA director in 2011, the Senate vote confirming the appointment was unanimous. But in November 2012 he abruptly resigned; the FBI had discovered that Petraeus, ostensible paragon of virtue, had been carrying on an extramarital affair with his hero-worshiping biographer, Paula Broadwell.
New York City first responders, especially members of the fire department, were praised as heroes after the September 11 attacks. But firefighters too are capable of reputation-damaging behavior, as the following years revealed. A number of New York firemen assigned to care for the widows of their fallen comrades had affairs with the women; several even abandoned their own households. As one spurned wife said, “Not only have these men dishonored their own families, they’ve dishonored the memories of men who are heroes.”
Heroes are sometimes manufactured. David Petraeus had an impressive resume, but the media, portraying him as the United States’ “savior” in the Iraq war, helped polish the general’s brass, as did Congress members playing groupies to his rock star when he testified on Capitol Hill. Author of the Iraq counterinsurgency strategy, Petraeus was praised for his brilliance—an assessment later called into question by the circumstances of his disgrace: The nation’s chief intelligence officer had been dumb enough to send torrid emails to his paramour through an unsecured email account.
The fabrication of Pat Tillman’s heroism was more insidious and disheartening. An Arizona Cardinals football player, Tillman was motivated by the attacks of September 11, 2001, to enlist in the army, relinquishing a $3.6 million contract. After deploying to Iraq and then training as an Army Ranger, Tillman was sent to Afghanistan. In April 2004 he was cut down by friendly fire, possibly murdered by fellow rangers. But the military desperately needed heroes, and the square-jawed Tillman fit the bill. High-ranking officers replaced the facts of Tillman’s death with a hero’s story and arranged for him to be posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry under “devastating enemy fire.”
Warfare is evolving, technologically and also culturally, as more women take up combat positions, yet there will always be warriors who violate the rules of war. In the Iliad, for example, Achilles’s reaction to the death of his friend Patroclus is relentlessly violent. Defying the Greek-warrior ethos, Achilles dishonors the body of his defeated foe, Hector, by tying it to his chariot and dragging it around the battlefield, disgusting even some of the gods with his inability to control his rage. In his 1994 book Achilles in Vietnam, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay describes Achilles’s behavior as “berserk.” Explosive responses to the stresses of battle are hardly unknown in present-day conflicts. The berserk soldier, Shay writes, is “blind to everything but his destructive aim. He cannot see the distinction between civilian and combatant or even the distinction between comrade and enemy.” Such madness has led to horrific atrocities, as in March 2012, when a U.S. army sergeant murdered 17 Afghan villagers, including nine children. Beyond the tragedy, such sickening acts can undermine a war effort, create new enemies and besmirch the honor, integrity and heroism of a fighting force as a whole.
For many reasons, including pervasive historical prohibitions on women in combat and longstanding restrictions on women’s participation in athletics, females celebrated as heroes are relatively few. Nonetheless, virtually every culture celebrates women warriors, such as France’s Joan of Arc and the “Molly Pitcher” cannoneers of the American Revolution. Those numbers will undoubtedly multiply as the U.S. and other militaries remove gender as an obstacle to combat positions.
Fewer female heroes equates, obviously, to fewer female fallen heroes, both ignoble and virtuous. In sports, American track athlete Marion Jones, who lied about using performance-enhancing drugs, was stripped of the Olympic medals she won in Sydney in 2000. The case of U.S. Army private Jessica Lynch, captured during an ambush early in the Iraq War, resembles that of Pat Tillman: Military officials manufactured a heroic tale, and the media eagerly disseminated the fiction. (Lynch, to her credit, never claimed hero status.) Of course, U.S. military women do fall valiantly in combat, and some rise again: Army helicopter pilot Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee due to grievous injuries suffered in Iraq in 2004, became a U.S. representative in 2013, joining the ranks of (male) disabled vets who have served in Congress.