Where Have All The Heroes Gone?

Where Have All The Heroes Gone?
Ernest Hemingway's great war novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), which was made into a blockbuster Academy Award-winning film with the same title (1943), contains one of American literature's most celebrated creations in its protagonist Robert Jordan.

Through Jordan, we learn what it means to be an American hero, by an author who many saw as an authentic American hero himself. So conscious was Hemingway that Jordan represented the best virtues of being American - he is brave, courageous, compassionate, and stoically sacrifices his life to fight injustice - that he insisted Gary Cooper, who had made his career playing the classic American heroes, take the part.

In the story, Jordan has come to Spain to kill Franco's fascists and blow up his bridges in what we would describe today as "terrorist acts." The story does not last more than a few days but contains several levels of meaning, at the centre of which is a love story between Jordan and a young Spanish girl called Maria. For Hemingway, Maria embodies the land of Spain and the hope for the future - her eyes sparkle when she looks at Jordan, her hair is golden and Jordan runs his fingers through it although it is cropped from the time the fascists shaved her head after raping her, and even her young breasts which are described as "little hills." Jordan's love for her symbolises the love of the American for the land and its cause. Just as he wanted Cooper for the male lead, Hemingway met and invited the fresh-looking Ingrid Bergman to play Maria.

Hemingway had consciously projected Jordan as embodying a central concept in Western society, which is to battle for the idea carried in the title, For Whom the Bell Tolls, a line from a poem by John Donne, the English poet.
The fictitious Jordan is not the only American who is drawn to the battle between the Republicans on one side, and the Fascists of General Franco and his fascist allies in Germany and Italy; some 3,000 Americans actually turned up to volunteer

US volunteers on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War organised the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

The answer is the bell tolls "for thee." The poem includes another well known phrase, "No man is an island." Hemingway is arguing that we are all - irrespective of religion and colour - interconnected as part of a larger human civilisation with values that are universal and must be protected even if it involves violence. The fictitious Jordan is not the only American who is drawn to the battle between the Republicans on one side, and the Fascists of General Franco and his fascist allies in Germany and Italy; some 3,000 Americans actually turned up to volunteer in the fight against the tyrant in Spain in the late 1930s.

What would Robert Jordan do today against the tyrant President Assad of Syria? Not much. There is a difference in the political and cultural context in the two situations. If Jordan did what came so naturally to him when he left for Spain, he would be branded a "terrorist." Volunteers from America are specifically barred from leaving the US to join the battle in Syria against Assad. If they do go, as some have, or try to, they are called terrorists, and are subject to arrest, persecution and risk losing their citizenship. So Assad, backed by foreign forces, has butchered over 300,000 civilians and driven out some four million to seek shelter in foreign lands and over seven million to escape from their bombed-out homes with impunity. Still, he survives. The Marias of Syria wait for Robert Jordan to come to their aid in vain.

A juxtaposition of these two events from history challenges Hemingway's idea of America as the champion of democracy, human rights and justice. Indeed the irony of those American presidential candidates who would call the Syrian victims of Assad - the Marias - escaping from the slaughter "rabid dogs" and deny them refuge, even to orphan children, seems to have escaped them.

Hemingway would have been distressed at America's abdication of its role and, because he would have understood its implications, he would have been in despair at the depth of the loss.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is Distinguished Professor of International Relations and holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University, School of International Service. He is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center Washington DC. His academic career included appointments such as Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD; the Iqbal Fellow and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge; and teaching positions at Harvard and Princeton universities. Ahmed dedicated more than three decades to the Civil Service of Pakistan, where his posts included Commissioner in Balochistan, Political Agent in the Tribal Areas, and Pakistan High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland