The Future Hero

Can heroism be taught? What about combat medals for drone operators, or socially engineered moral crusaders?

Hello there, Antony Funnell here, welcome to Future Tense.

This week on the program, how our notions of heroism are changing and who, or what, could be the hero of the future. The very notion of the hero might, on first thought, seem immutable, set in stone, but as we'll hear, exactly what constitutes a hero has gone through immense change.

In this episode, producer Tiger Webb explores how advances in robotic technologies are challenging the concept of battlefield heroism, and meets a psychologist who aims to use the high school system to create his own heroic supersquads, and change the world.

So, the future of the hero, and the producer is Tiger Webb.

Tiger Webb: I watched Top Gun recently. If you haven't seen Top Gun, it's a pretty exemplary 1980s action film. Lots of big hair, late Cold War American machismo and of course, Tom Cruise.

Top Gun tells the story of a maverick young naval aviator whose call sign, helpfully, is also Maverick. After some setbacks during his training, he gradually begins to learn the power of teamwork. By the film's climax he manages to save the day, shooting down some unspecified but presumably Russian aggressors. It's all pretty heroic.

But then I realised, if the film were to be made today, the pilots of Top Gun academy would be increasingly likely to be unmanned aerial vehicle operators, or out in the field with some kind of robotic assistance.

So I wondered: say we make that film today, would the Top Gun pilots still be heroes? Do advances in technology change what it means to be a hero? Or does the concept itself change organically over time?

Jeremy Frimer: So first of all we have to talk about what a hero is, and I think of moral heroes has having two basic qualities, one is that they're givers, they're selfless givers, they're altruists, and the second is that they're defenders of the sacred values of a particular group. So they're a hero to a group, they're not a hero writ large, they're a hero to a group.

Tiger Webb: Jeremy Frimer is an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Winnipeg. For Frimer, hero formation really comes down to what he calls sacred values.

Jeremy Frimer: Which are like the defining core values which are just non-negotiable for a particular group; for example, defend the environment, for liberals. Being a giver is more complicated though, because no one is really a giver, everyone is complicated and people are sometimes givers, they are sometimes takers, they're sometime matching other people. But we perceive heroes as being basically always givers, they're selfless altruists, and I think that's what makes them pure in our minds and elevates them into a kind of a form of deity.

Tiger Webb: And as Frimer points out, these values aren't always constant.

Jeremy Frimer: They change over time and they are unique to each group. So sacred values are unlike regular values. So I might value exercise but I'm willing to make trade-offs about my exercise, so I might not exercise today so that I can exercise tomorrow or something. But a sacred value is unlike a regular value in that it is not amenable to trade-offs. So life is a sacred value for most people; we are unwilling to sacrifice one child to save five children. So that's a common sacred value that most people hold, not everyone.

But when it comes to each particular group they tend to sacralise some particular cause. So it might be…for left-leaning people it might be the environment, or it might be civil rights, or gender equality. And for the right it might be traditional marriage. So yes, each group is going to have its own sacred values and they are going to change over time to reflect the current objective and goals of each particular moralistic group.

Tiger Webb: I was curious, did Jeremy Frimer view someone like Edward Snowden as a hero defending a new set of sacred values? Or were they old values like personal liberty and privacy, set against an entirely new state apparatus?

Jeremy Frimer: Yes, so he represents freedom from oppression from the government and he's basically shown that he's willing to take on great personal sacrifice for that particular cause, so he has both elements of sacred values, of protecting our privacy and also this selflessness, this altruism. So he's a good example.

Tiger Webb: More from Jeremy Frimer in a bit.

Heroes simultaneously reflect and advance the values and norms of a given society. And they are always a step ahead.

Scott Stephens is the online editor for ABC Religion. I called him up when I was making this program to have a chat about heroes. He had so much to say about the evolution of the hero as a concept, I ended up recording a bit of our chat. What does Scott think our future heroes will look like?

Scott Stephens: I must say, the future doesn't bode well. And I think that has become one of the more troubling developments. Our popular cultural heroes become the people who get what they want. They're not virtuous so much as they are effective, and I think the reason that that's become quite an important trend is that after Vietnam, after the revelations of Watergate, after the great role of the investigative intrepid reporter as hero…I mean, please notice that, in the mid '70s it was the swashbuckling journalist, it was the wartime correspondent revealing the atrocities in Vietnam, these were the great heroes. But what marked them out as heroes? What marked them out is that they bought power down, they were disestablishment figures.

And I think that kind of cynicism that began in the mid-'70s and continues to trickle right through down to the moment where we can't really expect internal virtue or moral rectitude from our heroes but what we can bank on from our heroes is that they'll be pretty damn effective in what they do. In other words, our heroes now and I suspect our heroes into the future are going to be heroes with dirty hands.

Just take the great BBC series House of Cards with Francis Urquhart that got transmuted into the American House of Cards with Frank Underwood, think about Breaking Bad with Walter White, think about Dexter Morgan, these are anti-heroes, they are incredibly dark, they are doing things that in many ways are the furthest thing from being virtuous, and yet somehow in the middle of that they end up exuding a power of fascination on the audience and more than anything else they end up getting their way.

Tiger Webb: Scott Stephens, a colleague of mine from ABC Religion.

A curious thing is happening here; when I talk to people like Jeremy Frimer about heroes, the examples they tend to come up with are mostly from half a century ago. It's Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, JFK. There's nothing wrong with that, but it begs the question; might heroes be more difficult to form in a more cynical, information-saturated age?

Consider Malala Yousafzai. In 2012 the then 15-year-old survived an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban. She had been targeted for advancing the cause of female education. Since then, Malala has been lauded around the world, in 2014 becoming the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

To be quite mercenary about it, you couldn't ask for less controversial candidate for a modern hero. But even as UN petitions were launched in her name, a backlash emerged. There were also more measured responses, who viewed Malala's reaction in the West as playing neatly into a narrative that demonised non-white Muslim men and elevated Malala to the status of, in the words of journalist Assed Baig, 'the good native, one who does not criticise the West.'

This is nothing new; as long as there have been heroes, there have been naysayers. What has changed is the immediacy of the response, and the sheer weight of information about our heroic candidates we have access to. Does this mean more restricted heroic figures in the digital age? Jeremy Frimer:

Jeremy Frimer: So there's two ways of thinking about heroes, we can think of them as being these people that we discover, that they're doing these great things and then we find out about them. Someone mentions it, or we see a blog or we see some news clip and all of a sudden this person is discovered as the hero they've always been. And if that's the case, then you're right, that the more information we have on these people…I mean heroes are flawed, they're human beings, and they have their flaws just like the rest of us. If we become aware of that information, yes, we will probably have less heroes, because we will have the dirt on everyone, including our heroes, and no one will rise to this deity status.

When we get into moral issues, things that we really feel strongly about, that are core to we are in our group, I don't think that we act as detectives, I think we act more like lawyers where we're looking for information to back our point and we actually don't even want to see information that doesn't. So if I'm right about this, then really the question is; are moralistic groups going to be in increasing conflict with one another or decreasing conflict? If they come into more and more conflict with one another, we're going to see more heroes, even with all the available information on them.

Tiger Webb: So if Jeremy Frimer is right, we're probably going to see more moral heroes as time marches on. But Jeremy Frimer has bad news for explicitly political heroes. We're probably not going to see another JFK or Churchill.

Jeremy Frimer: I think politicians are going to have a harder time being heroes nowadays because we do know so much about the politics of what they're doing, whereas that has changed over time. I can't think of too many politicians that are really heroic in the way that non-politicians but political type of figures are. And it is accelerating, so we see Barack Obama's fall from grace, where he was a deity…I mean, just thinking of that red and blue poster that came out around 2008. He wasn't even a human at that point it seems, and now we see him as this flawed, complex president who tried to do some great things and was able to do some and not some other things. The information is going to have an influence on politicians for sure. Whether it does for other types of heroes outside of actual incumbent politicians is another question.

Tiger Webb: And that's where we leave Jeremy Frimer, an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Winnipeg.

Now we know what a hero is and how they're formed and that we're probably going to see more of them in future, it's time to go back to Top Gun.

Excerpt from Top Gun:

Stinger: Maverick? How's it feel to be on the front page of every newspaper in the English-speaking world? Even though the other side denies the incident, congratulations.

Maverick: Thank you, sir.

Stinger: They gave you your choice of duty, son, anything, anywhere. Where do you think you want to go?

Maverick: I thought of being an instructor, sir.

Stinger: Top Gun?

Maverick: Yes, sir.

Stinger: God help us.

Tiger Webb: War heroes, even fictional ones played by Tom Cruise, have always been defined by their courage, their willingness to risk their lives on behalf of civilians and to take responsibility of their fellow servicemen.

But the battlefield is changing. For many militaries it's increasingly robotic, increasingly automated. How does that change our idea of the war hero? Would Maverick from Top Gun be across the pages of the English-speaking world if he'd been behind a joystick, remotely operating a drone from thousands of miles away?

Peter Singer: Technology has always shaped our ideal of the warrior. I use Mel Gibson movies as the illustration of this.

Tiger Webb: Peter Warren Singer is a strategist with the New America Foundation. In 2009 he wrote a book on robotics in the military, Wired for War. It's now on the official reading list for the US defence forces and the Royal Australian Navy.

Peter Singer: At one point in history, the most fierce, the person that led the charge was considered the ideal warrior; Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Then, with the introduction of gunpowder, our definition of the idealised warrior was not the one who was most fierce, it was the one who was most calm and collected, who could stand in a line 100 feet away from another line, and both sides shooting each other and not being willing to running away. That was Mel Gibson in The Patriot, the movie set in the revolutionary war period, the 1700s in America.

Then you get a new technology that essentially takes the idea of exposing yourself to danger not as bravery but bravery to the point of tragedy, the machine gun, and that's Mel Gibson in Gallipoli. And we've seen this interactive effect of technology and war and the warrior, and so we shouldn't be surprised that we're going through it again when we talk about technologies like cyber or drones.

Tiger Webb: When we think of robotic warfare, we usually think of planes; giant, expensive, remote-operated planes like the Predator and Reaper models. To civilian minds, they might seem like a small part of the armed forces, but there's hardly a military in the world that hasn't already moved into robotics in a big way.

Peter Singer: Robotics is a technology that we still think of as, you know, from the realm of science fiction. They're doing yet another Terminator movie, apparently. But they now are a real part of war and a growing part of war. At least 87 different countries have some kind of military robotics program, some kind of unmanned system, most of them aerial, drones so to speak, at least 20 of those are of the type that have either currently or been armed at some point.

The US is by far the biggest user of this. We're by far the biggest military in the world, so that makes sense. Roughly the US military has about 8,000 unmanned aerial systems, most of them the little small type that you would toss with your hand that would fly away, but lots of them of the larger airplane-sized versions. And then it has another 12,000 unmanned ground systems and we're also starting to use them on the navy side, so it's quite prevalent.

Tiger Webb: In the theatre of war, deciding who is and who isn't a hero has always been a fraught exercise. And with increasingly automated, unmanned and robotic militaries, it's getting even more difficult.

Peter Singer: There's a story I like to point to as an illustration of this where the US effort to get Zarqawi, who was the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq about a decade ago, a very bad guy, carried out the bombing of the UN headquarters there, and so the effort to find him took multiple weeks of tracking him with unmanned systems, with drones. And then they finally find him. They find that he's meeting at an isolated farmhouse, and so then they carry out the strike.

The drones aren't armed at the time so they call in fighter jets. Two fighter jets go; one of the fighter jets goes onto afterburners to lose his wingmate so that he can get there first. No one's shooting at them, it's Iraq. He then presses a button and a computer guided bomb goes down to the target that the drone has lased. So who gets the medal? Should it be the jet fighter pilot who did a six-minute mission? Or should it be the head of the drone operation that actually found the target that spent weeks and weeks at it?

Tiger Webb: Peter Singer.

That question—who gets the medal—is key here. Military decorations are kind of this attempt to codify and recognise qualities that military establishments find heroic in their troops.

In 2013, outgoing US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta announced the Distinguished Warfare Medal, for (and I'm quoting here) 'extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but do not involve acts of valor or physical risks that combat entails.' The Distinguished Warfare Medal was not received well.

Megan Kelly [archival]: This is interesting because Chuck Hagel, the Defence Secretary, stood behind this decision. He thought this was fine. Pete, your thoughts on it?

Peter Hegseth [archival]: Well, there's a big difference between being in combat and supporting combat and that should be reflected in the types of rewards we give. You know, heroism and the things that vets don't use but are hoisted upon those in battle is something that requires risk and there is a lot different risk calculation when you're looking the enemy in the eye on the ground versus from a comfy chair with a controller.

Tiger Webb: That's Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America there talking to Fox News's Megan Kelly.

Why did the introduction of this medal for drone warfare rankle people so? Peter Singer:

Peter Singer: That's what makes this technology so different is that it's not just that it's more lethal or that it flies faster or further or the like, it's that it fundamentally changes the risk relationship. You've always, when you've talked about war, it's been an effort of both causing risk to others but also exposing yourself to risk. That's the mutuality of it. And that's true whether you're talking about knights in the Middle Ages, or bomber pilots in World War II, even though they may be a mile overhead there was still risk to them.

And now with these new technologies, whether you're talking about drones or whether you're talking about cyber, you can still carry out the act, you can cause the damage, but you don't necessarily have to go into harm's way. And that is causing a redefinition of what does it mean to be a soldier, what are the core values that need to be held, what is the identity, what's the training, who should be doing these roles, and also how do we recognise them? And that's why there was such a pushback within the current military, the idea that these 'chair-warriors' might get recognised in the same way that some of the great heroes of old have.

Tiger Webb: The proposal for the Distinguished Warfare Medal was later rejected. Not because the work of drone and cyber operators wasn't valued, it was panned because it ranked on par or above medals like the Purple Heart, a prerequisite for which is being wounded in combat.

The thinking seems to be from the military establishment and the public at large that drone operators aren't war heroes. Their job, however vital to military operations it might be, doesn't place them in any immediate physical danger. But what about their mental risk? The thinking used to run that drone operators were no different from mortar attacks. They could fire and forget.

But then the world met, via a GQ interview by the late Matt Power, a drone pilot called Brandon Bryant:

Brandon Bryant [archival]: When the smoke clears, there's a crater there. He's missing his right leg, and I watched this guy bleed out. And it's clear enough that…I watch him and he's grabbing his leg, and he's rolling. I can almost see the agony on this guy's face. And eventually this guy becomes the same colour as the ground that he bled upon. And so I watched this guy, I watched him bleed out, I watched the result of…I guess collectively it was our action but ultimately I'm the responsible one who guided the missile in.

Tiger Webb: Former drone operator Brandon Bryant talking to NBC news.

Research from the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Centre shows that drone operators come back from duty with similar levels of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorders to the pilots of manned vehicles. This ties into a recurring theme in Singer's book. As military technologies advance, they're viewed both by society and the military as the end of idealised courage and heroism in war. It happened with gunpowder weapons, it happened with tanks. There's this process of internal and external calibration of the idea of a war hero.

Peter Singer: The capability often arrives in a technical sense before you get full adaptation by the military itself. And that story of how and why you pull it into your military, the forces that might push against it range from just old-fashioned conservatism, not wanting to change, to protecting the organisational culture of the military, to businesses looking at this as threatening to things they already make, to the laws and legal and ethics side hasn't been worked out before. And invariably it's during the heat of war itself as opposed to before the militaries are fighting, that's when we really see a lot of these hurdles get leaped over. And again, that was the story whether you're talking about the airplane, or the submarine, or now with unmanned systems.

Tiger Webb: Peter W Singer is a strategist at the New America Foundation and the author of many books, including most recently with Allan Friedman, Cybersecurity and Cyberwarfare: What Everyone Needs to Know.

On RN, you're listening to Future Tense. Today on the program, the future of heroes.

We can all agree the world would be a better place if there were more heroes in it. But what if there were some sort of hero academy that aimed to produce entire generations of moral exemplars?

Philip Zimbardo: When I was a kid I grew up in the ghetto of the South Bronx in New York, and there were men (and it's always men!) whose job it is to seduce good kids to do bad things for money, to steal, to take drugs, to sell drugs and for girls to sell their bodies. There are people now around the world getting young kids and now even young girls to join terrorist groups.

Tiger Webb: This is Phil Zimbardo. He's a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. That name might sound familiar to you. In the 1970s Phil led a research team to conduct what's now known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Phil's team created a mock prison environment, then divided the study's participants into guards and prisoners. Some of these newfound guards ended up abusing their mock prisoners. Phil was the superintendent. He reckons it taught him a lot about the nature of evil.

Nowadays, Phil heads the Heroic Imagination Project, an education program that aims to create 'everyday heroes' out of adolescent children by teaching them to fight against the daily grind of negative social influences. And Phil's taking aim at a lot of assumptions we have about our modern-day heroes.

Philip Zimbardo: One of the things we do (because I'm a social psychologist, I believe in the power of groups, the power of positive groups) is we get away from the old notion of the solitary hero, essentially the male warrior, the samurai warrior. These are really killers.

Tiger Webb: The heroes of the future, if you ask Dr Zimbardo, aren't going to be exceptional. Instead, if the Heroic Imagination Project gets its way, they'll be everyday occurrences. Zimbardo's program isn't just calling for more diversity in the heroes of our future, it challenges the idea of heroism as an innate, mystical quality.

Philip Zimbardo: An everyday hero means not the military hero, not the first responder, not the physical risk danger hero, but people who do everyday deeds of kindness, of caring, of making other people feel special. And I believe that this can be learned, can be trained, and that all of us has an inner hero that needs to be expressed. And our program teaches people, especially students, how to express it effectively and wisely.

Tiger Webb: Can heroes be socially engineered? Phil thinks so. A lot of the Heroic Imagination Project is really just guarding against the psychological path of least resistance. Human beings love to conform to social norms, but sometimes that leads to downright non-heroic actions. But it's not just about avoiding psychological pitfalls. The Heroic Imagination Project also makes its participants publicly commit to positive change.

Philip Zimbardo: Every kid ends up making a commitment to be a social change agent, that is to use knowledge not to show off that you're smart, but you now have a label. You see something happening, you have a label. Hey, that's stereotyped threat, hey, that's negative conformity, hey, that's the bystander effect. So you have that label, and then with that label goes an action component. Therefore I must do…call the police, I must help, I must call parents, whatever.

Tiger Webb: At the heart of Phil Zimbardo's project lies this aim of getting children to conceive of themselves not as individuals, but as part of the group that is wider society. And children are key, the aim there being get in early before individualistic tendencies can take root. But can it work? Is it really all that different from civics and citizenship programs in schools around the world? Initial reactions from schools have been positive. And pretty soon we'll be able to find out. Phil Zimbardo:

Philip Zimbardo: So we have formal material that we've spent a lot of time preparing, and now the exciting thing is this very month our program is going to be in hundreds of schools in Hungary, starting in Budapest, also in Warsaw, Poland, and also in Flint, Michigan, which is one of the most depressed towns in America because they got the negative overflow from the automobile manufacturing disaster in Detroit. And also amazingly in Corleone, Sicily, the Godfather town. My family's Sicilian and so I got the mayor of this town to approve having our program in their high schools.

The enemy of heroism is egocentrism. Heroes are socio-centric, they focus on others. Also pessimism, cynicism, all those negative traits are enemies of heroism. Because heroes are socially-focused, heroes are focused on 'what can I do in the moment to make the world better in the future'. And it's little things, it's really the accumulation of a lot of little positives.

Tiger Webb: Dr Phil Zimbardo is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University and president and founder of the Heroic Imagination Project.

We started the show with this question—say the movie Top Gun gets remade, set in a training facility for drone pilots. Is Tom Cruise still a hero? Today the military systems field covering unmanned vehicle operators and robotics is the fastest growing part of a lot of the world's air forces, but it also tends to be the part with the lowest rate of promotion throughout the military. So, based off that standard, they are not heroes, or at least they are not recognised as such. Yet.

Antony Funnell: And that report from producer Tiger Webb. Thanks also to sound engineer Louis Mitchell.

Next week on the show, the promise and dream of nuclear fusion. Those involved in the research believe it has the potential to be an energy game-changer. But the dream has been a long time in the formulation. So, next on Future Tense, exactly what is nuclear fusion? What makes it a safer than the traditional form of nuclear power? And how serious are the bods at Lockheed Martin who claim they'll soon have a functioning nuclear fusion reactor that will fit on the back of a small truck. That's the promise of nuclear fusion, on our next show.

I'm Antony Funnell, until then, cheers and bye for now!


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