Sunday, 21 September 2014

Winston Churchill as Hero

     He is without doubt one of, if not THE most interesting characters to ever sit astride the world stage. Fifty years after his death, he is still named by many as their personal hero. He managed to save the free world it sometimes seems, not because of that character but in spite of it.

     He was a complicated and far from perfect man. Although I consider his leadership during the war to be heroic, I don't really think of him as one of my personal heroes. I doubt I would have enjoyed his company. He was deeply flawed in many ways: intolerant of others whose intellects did not rise to the heights of his own, often petulant, frequently wrong, an alcoholic, certainly. He suffered from bouts of depression, what he called the "black dog." A man of his times, he believed wholeheartedly in British imperialism. He was unable to see the coming end to that particular form of world domination, even as its end became more and more obvious in the waning days of the war as America's rise became clear to everyone else. He could make remarks that were petty, crass and even racist. He looked down on Gandhi as a "Wog" and a troublemaker and suggested letting him die from one of his hunger strikes. He resisted India's heroic fight for independence even as he was calling on Britons to battle for their own liberty against Hitler.

     Churchill is incredibly difficult to categorize, a man of contradictions. He could be forward looking, embracing the development of the tank during World War I, against the advice of military men. At the same time, he refused to see the end of the era of his beloved battleships, calling for a combined British and American fleet of new sixteen-gun battleships, even though the ships were dinosaurs. But then, almost overnight, he embraced the need for aircraft carriers. Battleships took five years to build, while an aircraft carrier could be rigged out of a hull in a matter of months.

     Despite all of these faults, however, he was still, clearly, the right man at the right time to save western civilization from the forces of tyranny and evil. His intellect was massive, one of the best ever in the fields of military planning, of politics, of literature. His use of the English language is almost without parallel. An argument could be made that he literally "talked" the people of Britain and the world into believing they could and ultimately would defeat Hitler. Not an easy task when the world was reeling from Blitzkrieg in 1939 and from the Battle of Britain in 1940.

     Yet a generation earlier, it would have been hard to imagine him rising to world leadership. He suffered ignominy and ridicule in World War l--the Great war--through his defeat at Gallipoli and the Dardenelles, leading to his dismissal as First Lord of the Admiralty. After leaving office, instead of retiring to his study and his books, he chose instead to go directly to the front lines in France and face the enemy in the trenches and on the battlefield.

     Clearly, he was no coward, leading from the rear. He had witnessed slaughter firsthand on battlefields in India in a previous century, in Belgium in 1916 and in London in 1940. He'd been a prisoner of war during the Boer War, escaped and was lionized in Britain, which he used to catapult his political career. He had taken part in the last great cavalry charge in history in the Sudan. He seemed at times to simply defy death. He believed his life had a purpose and that he couldn't die until that purpose had been achieved.

     When he became Prime Minister in the darkest days of civilization, he was as hands-on a leader as one could imagine. He traveled well over a hundred thousand miles during the course of the war, and this in a time when travel was long, slow and difficult, even by airplane. And oh so risky in a world aflame with war. His health often suffered on long, cold, unheated airline flights that he knew were the cause of repeated bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia. He traveled to Moscow, to America, to Africa and the Middle East, to war zones wherever they were. His bravery was legendary and inspirational to soldiers as well as citizens.

     As a writer, I've found it great fun to imagine Churchill in scenes with other world leaders, to imagine what this irascible character might have said to Queen Victoria or King George or Stalin or Hitler. He is the ultimate protagonist. Heroic? Certainly. In many ways to many people, myself included. Just not in every situation. What makes him a terrific character for a novel is his moodiness, his insecurities and, yes, his faults. Who among us can admire a hero we can't identify with? Churchill's many flaws make him real to us, thus raising his achievements to the realm of legend.

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