We Americans are in a serious quandary.  Our national mythology—like the mythologies of most nations—requires us to pay tribute to the heroes of the past.  Once upon a time, Fourth of July speeches routinely invoked the bravery of George Washington and his men, their sufferings at Valley Forge, and their surprise crossing of the Delaware.  We admired the brilliance and gallantry of Lee, the steadfastness of Grant, the reckless fortitude of Custer, the toughness of commanders such as Black Jack Pershing or George Patton, the personal bravery of Alvin York and Audie Murphy.  And if Grant was an alcoholic butcher and Custer, an incompetent war criminal, we preferred to ignore their shortcomings, remembering that Grant was cool under fire and that Custer died gamey.

And then came Vietnam, and images of Alvin York and Audie Murphy were replaced by those of Lt. William Calley and the My Lai massacre.  But long before My Lai and the so-called Vietnam syndrome of cynicism and dishonor, Americans were already being trained to prefer existentialist antiheroes to the red-blooded Marines who stormed the shores of Tripoli.  Even before Sartre’s repellent self-portrait as Mathieu (in L’age de raison) and Camus’ Stranger, there was Bogart on film and the English poets who were understandably demoralized by the horror of the trenches in World War I.  Poets often have the best sense of smell, and it is a terrible truth that most good English and American poets of the 20th century either hated war or saw it, at best, as an ugly necessity.  Their truth was turned into propaganda by lesser men.

When Lieutenant Calley went berserk in 1968, an entire generation of American college students had been cutting their cynical eyeteeth on Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, John Barth’s End of the Road, Vance Bourjaily’s Confessions of a Spent Youth, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up, and, perhaps most significantly, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

None of these books entirely lacks literary merit, and none of the authors necessarily intended to promote the effeminate and sneering contempt for heroism and virtue that Paul Newman would exemplify on the screen.  However responsible they may be for shaping the mentality of their times, poets and novelists are as much the victims of their times as the rest of us.

The antihero has been with us a long time.  Since the American War Between the States, most sane and humane people have recognized that war under modern conditions is less likely to breed heroic and chivalrous soldiers than to induce selfishness and despair among the men “who die as cattle.”  I have known a number of combat veterans who fought hard and endured much, but few of them had the old soldier’s taste for spinning tales about their exploits.  At Fredericksburg, General Lee told Longstreet that “it is well that war is so terrible—we should grow too fond of it,” but war was to become even more terrible without diminishing the appetite for war in the men who rule democracies.  Our quandary, then, is that good Americans know that our tradition requires heroism of its men, but we also know that our instinct for courage has been too often manipulated by ambitious politicians without the shadow of a justification for their endless wars.

The War Between the States inspired the first little wave of cynicism.  Although Southerners honored their heroes of the war and, throughout the Midwest, even such scoundrels as Illinois’ Black Jack Logan, founder of the Grand Army of the Republic, were revered as great men, Northeasterners were more ambiguous.  The progressive muckraker Stephen Crane (from Newark) set the stage.  Crane’s first novel was a sympathetic account of a “girl of the streets,” and he went on to describe the horrors of a war that had ended before he was born.  Crane was among the first realists in American literature, a genuine American original, who borrowed his ideas from Zola.

New England’s educated classes—who had, by and large, stayed safely out of the war—grew quickly tired of celebrating the martial virtues they actually despised.  Henry Adams, whose Southern grandmother and college friendships with Virginians made him a man of confused loyalties, decided to “break glass” by attacking the memory of Virginia’s first cavalier, Capt. John Smith.  The attack was so effective that it was not until the late 1950’s that the process of rehabilitation was undertaken.

The most controversial point in Smith’s career was not the romantic episode with Pocahontas but his exploits fighting the Turks, which he described in his autobiography.  Smith was not a learned man—and the English have never been good at pronouncing, much less spelling, foreign names—and his account was peppered with names of places and people that seemed invented until Laura Polanyi Striker, with her knowledge of Hungarian, was able to demonstrate that the description he gives of his travels and battles, however highly colored, is substantially accurate.

Smith had had an amazing career even before joining the Jamestown expedition.  Born in 1580 to a mildly prosperous yeoman family in Lincolnshire, he was, from early on, determined to be an adventurer.  He tried (and failed) to run off to sea, but, after his father’s death, he joined Capt. Joseph Duxbury, who was fighting the Spanish in the Low Countries.  Back in England, he began reading books on the military arts and was fortunate in gaining permission to improve his riding skills under the tutelage of the earl of Lincoln’s riding master, Theodore Polologa, an Italian who claimed descent from the Palaeologus family that had ruled the Byzantine empire.  It was probably from Polologa that the 20-year-old Smith conceived the fantastic idea of going east to fight the Turks.

Along the way, he was robbed by French traveling companions, but he eventually arrived in Rome, where the Protestant Smith had a meeting with Robert Parsons, S.J., the foremost English Catholic conspirator against Queen Elizabeth.  Parsons apparently arranged for his countryman to meet an Irish priest and an English Catholic in Graz, and, through these contacts, he signed up to fight under the banner of a Count Modrusch (Smith calls him Earl Meldritch), a scion of a noble Croatian family, the Frankopans.  (I wish I had known this a few years ago when I spent some days in Zagreb with Count Louis Frankopan and his wife and son.)  On this long campaign in Hungary and Rumania, Smith would fight alongside imperial subjects from the Balkans: Croats, Slovenes, and, undoubtedly, Serbs, who enlisted in large numbers in Habsburg armies.

Smith was a doughty fighter, and, what is more, he had studied what military manuals he could put his hands on.  His study of pyrotechnics enabled him to suggest a means of slinging explosive fireballs into a besieged city and using fireworks to frighten opposing cavalry.  His most famous exploit, however, took place in Transylvania, where the emperor was locked in a complex struggle with both Turks and Sigismund Bathory, to whom Modrusch had offered his services.  Yes, only 65 years after their disastrous defeat at Mohacs, the Hungarians and Rumanians still could not stay united against their common enemy.

At the siege of a town still hard to identify, a Turkish officer, bored with the siege, offered to do single combat with any of the enemy.  The boldest of the Christians put their names in a pot, and Smith was lucky enough to have his name drawn.  In the first encounter, Smith ran his lance through the faceplate of the Turk’s helmet, killed him, and took his head.  One of the victim’s enraged friends challenged Smith, who made short work of him the next day, shooting him off his horse and, once again, taking the head.  A third and most formidable challenger, “Bonny Mulgro,” struck Smith so hard that he dropped his battle-ax, but, coming in for the kill, the bold Turk found himself outmaneuvered by Smith’s accomplished horsemanship (the last revenge of the Palaeologi) and, run through the breast by the Englishman’s trusty falchion, lost his head.

Smith was rewarded handsomely for his heroism, receiving not only an annual pension of 300 ducats from Sigismund but a gentleman’s coat of arms from Count Modrusch: three Turk’s heads.  Fighting under Modrusch, Smith had enjoyed a great run of luck, but their luck soon ran out, and, outnumbered by a great force of Tartars fighting for the emperor against Sigismund Bathory, most of the Christians were killed in battle.  Modrusch and a few others escaped, but the wounded Smith was taken prisoner, nursed back to health, and sold into slavery.  He was eventually sent to a young Greek woman in Constantinople as a present from her Turkish admirer, who claimed to have captured this Bohemian nobleman in battle.  Through intermediaries, the girl learned the truth, and, feeling pity (or something more), she sent her English slave to learn the Turkish language and manners from her brother, a timariot (holder of a military fief), who was managing some vast estates on the Don River, northeast of the Sea of Azov.

The brother apparently realized that his sister’s regard for Smith was dangerous to his own interests, made him a slave of slaves, and sent him to work in the fields.  Not satisfied with his cruelty, the brother rode out to the fields, found the Englishman, and beat him with a threshing bat.  Smith, who could stand no more, killed his master with that very bat, took his clothes and horse, and rode out into the wilderness.

Captain Smith did not have the faintest idea where he was, and, looking at a map back in England, he could only guess.  He wandered aimlessly until he found a caravan trail that led from Poland to the Orient.  A sign marker showed a crescent and a cross (indicating Russia), and he wisely followed the cross until he was taken in, along the way, by a series of Russians, who helped him on his journey to the Habsburg empire.  “In all [my] life,” he declared, “[I] seldom met with more respect, mirth, content, and entertainment,” especially from the local governors, who (as Smith understood) realized that they were themselves “subject to like calamity.”

Smith did not return to England but went off in search of more trouble.  He ended up taking service with a French sea captain whose trade was remarkably close to piracy.  Battered mercilessly by Spanish warships, Smith and his French comrades held out and actually saved what was left of the ship, but it was a defeated and disgruntled Smith who made his way back to England.  At the age of 24, however, the adventurer was not ready for a quiet life.  Within a few years, he found himself involved in the Virginia Company’s expedition to the New World.  His know-it-all demeanor on the voyage so enraged the leaders that they made him their prisoner.  But, when they opened their sealed instructions, they were astonished to discover that Smith was to be a member of the Council of Virginia.

How John Smith saved the Jamestown colony from its follies—trusting and yet antagonizing the Indians and establishing a system of communism designed to produce sloth and famine—only to be nearly murdered by his rivals is a story that is (or ought to be) known to every American, who can read it either in Smith’s own words or in such excellent books as Phillip Barbour’s The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith (which I reread to refresh my failing memory).

Americans can draw many lessons from the career of their first hero.  Ours is not merely a nation of ne’er-do-wells and religious fanatics, a “propositional nation,” or an experiment for human transcendence.  The first American colonists were bold adventurers whose courage has been denigrated too long by the self-hating ex-Puritans of the northeast.  Strangest of all, perhaps, is the story of how the founder of Anglican Virginia, the exemplar of all true American heroes, went east under the direction of an English Jesuit, fought in a great crusade against the Ottoman Empire, and bore a coat of arms granted by a Hungarian Croat Catholic in honor of his exploits against the Muslims.  Americans who would be truly American will understand that our struggle today is Smith’s struggle 400 years ago, when he fought to keep the Turk from overrunning Europe.