Of Heroes and Ordinary Men

As of late, I’ve been reading a book called Ordinary Men. It’s a recount of German police battalion 101; a documentation of the men who served as part of Nazi Germany’s Order Police during the Second World War. The policemen, as cataloged by author Christopher Browning, are given an assignment on the morning of July 13, 1942 that would change their lives forever. And subsequently, the lives of every Jewish man, woman, and child living in the ghetto of Jozefow. Though only police officers, the battalion is handed down orders to “liquidate” the entire ghetto and thus, murder every single Jewish person – amounting somewhere in the thousands – that resided within. As you might suspect, the orders are carried out in full. But, not without consequence. In the days and years that follow, the members of Battalion 101 experience extreme regret, bitterness, and entanglement of their very souls. It’s a chilling read and a grim reminder of how quickly things can devolve into madness.

What’s more, the book chronicles how so many of these average police officers were given a choice: to carry out their orders or to simply “walk out.” The majority of them did not choose the latter. And though some did outright, a vast majority of officers participated. The details of which I will leave for those who wish to read the book themselves.

As a writer of fiction, I am in the business of creating stories. Stories that not only tickle the imagination, but project images and ideals of I would constitute as heroic. For without heroism, few protagonists are memorable.

And yet, when it comes to real life, the heroes we find in story are remarkably absent. Bullies surround a kid at school and no one intervenes. An employee knowingly removes money from the company bank account and those in the know turn a blind eye. If confronted with these situations ourselves, we’d all like to believe we’d rise to the occasion. That we’d mirror the heroes of our favorite fantasy or fiction and become the star of our circumstances. However, as I’m reading through Ordinary Men, it’s easy to see that we aren’t always as virtuous as we tend to think, nor are we as brave as we’d choose to believe. External forces – coupled by our own internal ones – drive us to self-preserve, to retain self-interest, and forego the sacrifice that might be necessary to simply do what is good and just.

But, what is good and just? Writers have been tackling what is right and what is wrong since the beginning of time. And the more specific and morally gripping the scenario, the cloudier our answer tends to become. Yet by continually engaging in stories that challenge our thinking on these matters, we continue to cultivate the best parts of ourselves: the traits most associated with what is admirable and what is desirable. And that’s worth writing about.

For more on that topic, check out my latest podcast We All Wish We Could Be The Hero.

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