From Armstrong to Alex, Finding Heroes For Our Times

With the loss of Neil Armstrong we need to learn to recognise the true heroes amongst us

For those of us who make up what I call the Lunar Generation, this week has marked the end of an era.  The death of Neil Armstrong, the first human to step on to the surface of the Moon, has brought a mixture of admiration, nostalgia and sadness. Armstrong was undoubtedly a hero to many people. Not just to his fellow Americans, but to people from every country on the Earth he left behind with his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts. 

Even for those of us too young to remember his exploits as they happened, Neil Armstrong represents everything positive about Humanity. I have to admit, I was alive way back in July 1969, but I was only a baby, so cannot actually claim to remember how it felt to know that one of my own species was, right that moment, stepping on to the surface of another heavenly body. 

I can, if I stretch my mind back really hard, remember seeing pictures on the news of one of the later Apollo missions. I would guess it was the last –  Apollo 17 – which took place late in 1972, by which time I was nearing my fourth birthday. The crew had splashed down into the ocean and they were being rescued from their capsule-turned-raft as it bobbed along on the Pacific Ocean. 

Although other astronauts walked on the Moon, it's the first Lunar Landing that really captures people's imaginations. And in our family it has a rather folkloric element. Because, just as Armstrong and Aldrin settled into their 'holiday' on the Moon, the tiny baby that was me settled in to her own bedroom for the first time. As illogical as it seems now, as a child I was convinced that this gave me a special connection to this great achievement for Humankind. That the baby me took her own 'small step' along with Armstrong's 'giant leap for Mankind', if you like. 

I've heard countless people state, these past few days, that now Armstrong's gone, we've lost that era of heroes. That we don't 'breed' that kind of hero any more. That the kind of man Neil Armstrong was – a stoic, attention-avoiding, reluctant hero –  just doesn't exist anymore.  I thought that might be something worth considering in this week's update.

I began to consider just what constituted a hero. Someone that showed courage, certainly. What else? Someone that understood the inherent dangers in what they were about to do, but that stuck at it regardless? Someone that sets a great example to the rest of us? Someone whose exploits will long be marvelled at? Someone who reached for the stars and went the extra mile and all the hundred other cliches that headline writers claw at? But is that it?

There's an old proverb that says 'a hero is a man (or presumably a woman) who is afraid to run away'. That may be part of it, of course, but I also think that Ralph Waldo Emerson's take – 'a hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer' – may be closer to the mark. Because there's nothing particularly heroic about not realising the risks. Surely true bravery comes only from those who understand the risks?

Is a hero someone who chooses to do something extraordinary? Or someone who is chosen to do it? Or just someone, as Neil Armstrong always claimed to be, who found their job took them to heroism almost by accident? Or, perhaps, it's someone who is forced by fate into a situation that requires heroism? I suspect that all three might be correct. But putting a precise definition on it seemed impossible. I know what a hero is not. It's not someone who deliberately seeks glory. Nor is it someone who re-tells their tale of 'heroism' over and over to soak up all the adulation that's thrown at them. It's certainly not someone who seems like a hero. After all the origins of the word 'hero' comes from the Greek concept of a demi-god. And what human being could really live up to that requirement?

And so I began to consider how to make that judgement. What does, or does not constitute heroism? And that was how it began. But as I was making my initial notes (yes, some pre-thought does go into this), a news item came on television. Sky News' correspondent Alex Crawford began a report from a village near to the Syrian city of Aleppo. She and her team had been taken by rebel forces to a village that was supposedly under their control. When they arrived, it was clear this was not the case. What followed was surely one of the most extraordinary and courageous piece of reporting I have seen in a long time. Suddenly the party came under fire of a nearby sniper and were forced to run for cover. The Sky team's rebel 'minders' were determined to get everyone out, even while the sniper continued to fire at them. On the soundtrack to the report, obviously a soundtrack that was deliberately included during the editing of the piece, you can hear Ms Crawford telling her 'minders' that she does not want to do as they suggest. It's clear she's scared. Very scared and yet she knows she has to overcome this. It's a remarkable piece of film and it shows everyone of us the lengths people like Alex Crawford (and, of course, her largely unsung crew) are prepared to go to so that we can see for ourselves the awful situation in troubled states.  There's a reason she's been awarded the OBE and been the Royal Television Society's Journalist of the Year four times. And it's entirely apparent in today's piece. The fact that she's not afraid to allow viewers at home hear her very obvious fear, says a lot about her. This is a woman in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but determined to do her job regardless. She's no glory-seeker either. Can you ever remember seeing her being interviewed? It's a very rare occurrence. 

Without doubt the piece of film I found myself watching provided us all with a perfect definition of what heroism really looks like. And perhaps this is where I should make a confession. I don’t  really ‘do’ heroes. I have people I admire, who I wish I could emulate. People who I find staggeringly remarkable. But not anyone I'd call a hero. Or so I thought. Because for several years now, Alex Crawford has been one of those people whom I've both admired and marvelled at. She is, of course, by no means the only member of her journalistic profession to put themselves in harm's way. But she not only manages to bring us the news from extreme situations, she manages to keep a human face while she's doing it. She's just a person doing her job. And that, by my reckoning at least, marks her out as one of our modern heroes.

So, perhaps, the next time we feel in need of a hero, we should look much closer to home. And simply switch on the news.