By Michael Johns
“By the rude bridge that arched the floor, their flag to April’s breeze unfurled. Here once the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard round the world.”
The words are from the introduction to The Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and they capture the heroism that was at the heart of the American Revolutionary War launched by American patriots at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775.The “shot heard around the world” was an act of heroism. Without it, there may never have been a United States. Without hundreds of individual and collective acts of American heroism since, our nation likely would never have persevered.
Several years ago, our national Tea Party movement began referring to themselves as “the three percent.” It referred to the fact that, among the American colonists of the 1770s, the battle for liberty was not waged by all, or even most. A mere three percent of the population participated in the Revolution, even though many more (roughly 40 to 45 percent supported it).This has largely been our nation’s experience with heroic acts since. While the nation embraces these acts in theory (especially once they prove successful), they are acts of heroism precisely because not everyone has done, or could do, them. After they unfold, we typically look back with a largely revisionist sense that all Americans embraced these causes and selfless acts at the time. In fact, it’s seldom the case.
Roughly fifteen months after Lexington and Concord, heroism again manifested with the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. It was signed by a mere 56 Americans and written almost exclusively by one, Thomas Jefferson. In retrospect, the 56 founders who signed the Declaration actually had every reason not to sign it. Most lived lives of relative tranquility and luxury for the time and were not ultimately the primary beneficiaries of the liberty and independence the Revolution achieved. Yet, they acted—as did the unknown patriot who fired the “shot heard round the world”—out of principle over practicality, and this also made them heroes who pledged their lives to a cause that they likely knew at the time could have failed miserably and (in the case of the American Revolution) was not even embraced by a solid majority of citizens.
Every generation of American history to date has had its heroes. The iconic ones, of course, are etched in stone: Washington and his soldiers at Valley Forge in the brutal winter of 1777-78, Lincoln and his perseverance as the nation threatened to fracture, and the political and military commitment to victory over fascism and later communism by a series of American leaders and patriots.Throughout what ultimately proved to be the final days of the Cold War, I saw firsthand the depth of commitment of American-led rebellions against Soviet hegemony in Africa, Asia and Latin America that comprised the foundation of the so-called "Reagan Doctrine."
As was the case with the American Revolution itself, these efforts were both supported and opposed by many but carried out by only a few. Sadly, many of those few never lived to see the post-Cold War world they helped create. They were killed in action, as was the case with Angola's Jonas Savimbi, or they were assassinated, as was the case with Afghanistan's Ahmad Shah Massoud and Nicaragua's Enrique Bermudez. But had the Soviet Union not encountered the brave resistance of these leaders in places like Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua, former Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev likely never would have reached the conclusion that retreatment and reconciliation, not continued investment in Cold War conflict, was in his nation’s best interest. Had that proven the case, what world might exist today?
In very recent months, of course, ths tradition of American heroism has continued. When an Islamic terrorist from Morocco entered their train car with an AK-47 machine gun and 300 rounds of ammunition in France last summer, it was three brave Americans (Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone) who jumped immediately to the passengers’ defense, likely saving the lives of many. “Your heroism must be an example for many and a source of inspiration,” French President Francois Hollande later said of their efforts.
And this past week, in Philadelphia, police officer Jesse Hartnett, who sustained multiple gun shots from an ISIS-inspired terrorist, heroically persevered against the terrorist, even in his bloodied and bullet-ridden state. “Shots still…shots fired. I’m shot. I’m bleeding heavily. Get us another unit out here. 6-0 and Spruce,” Hartnett can be heard saying in a chilling Philadelphia police radio call as he stumbled from his car to pursue the terrorist, who was apprehended.
This Thursday (January 14) evening, the ongoing story of American heroism continues with the national release of 13 Hours, an exceptional and historically accurate film that compellingly tells the story of six brave Americans who navigated the Obama administration’s political trepidation and intervened in defense of American personnel under attack by al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists at the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012.
Release of the film is prompting broad Twitter use of the hashtag #AHeroIs, as Americans reflect on the many other acts of heroism they have witnessed in their own lives or interpreted in their assessment of America's bold history.
While four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed in the Benghazi attack, the efforts of these five American heroes over the 13-hour conflict in Benghazi likely saved the lives of many others.
13 hours tells this compelling story of Benghazi, a continuation of the long-standing tradition of American heroism. It's an important story, and one all Americans should make a point to see.