This is the storyline novels are made of: Ultimate sacrifice for one’s country. A life motivated by the need to restore the once-respected family name that your alcoholic father tarnished. True love and bitter loss. Military genius and heroism. Secret letters with codes written in invisible ink made from onions. The ultimate betrayal. The greatest ignominy.
Only the book I just finished reading was no novel.
Instead, it was the true story of the man who, in the American War for Independence, was one of the greatest American heroes.
This was the man who realized that if the patriots were to be victorious they needed cannons, thought outside the box, and captured Fort Ticonderoga in order to obtain the needed cannons.
This was the man who, while recovering from a battle wound, could think of nothing else but the next move the Americans needed to make and planned an invasion of Canada. He led 1200 volunteers through hundreds of miles of impossible wilderness, enduring flash floods, early snow, inaccurate maps, desperate famine, and painful deaths with a stamina and courage almost unmatched in history. When that campaign ultimately failed, he was the last to embark on a boat headed to safety, selflessly sending all his men to safety first.
This was the man who, against the orders of superiors, dashed out into a losing battle and changed the tide for the American patriots, securing victory in that battle and campaign, and by domino effect, the aid of France which ultimately turned the tide in the entire war against the British Empire.
The book I just finished reading, The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery (which I highly recommend as an easy but fascinating and page-turning read!), concluded with this profound statement on the man himself:
“If Arnold had died from his wounds at the Battle of Saratoga, we would think of him today as one of the all-time great American heroes. Aside from Washington, we’d say, he did more to win our Revolution than anyone. We’d celebrate his life as one of the best action stories we have—Washington never did anything half as exciting as the march to Quebec or the Battle of Valcour Island. Sure, we’d say Arnold was unstable, tormented, a loose cannon. But he’d be our loose cannon. We don’t say any of that, and it’s all Arnold’s fault. But still, it’s all true.”
Benedict Arnold’s epic life proved that he was brilliant, brave, and heroic. But he was also stubborn, volatile, and craved one thing more than anything else: recognition.
Praise and promotion was the coin with which he traded.
Applause was the language he understood.
Honor was the motivation behind the man.
When he didn’t get it, he was willing to betray his friends, his family name, his cause, his life, and his country, and he somehow convinced himself that he was justified in so doing.
As one who is very much driven by encouragement, praise, and pleasing others, I can easily relate to Benedict Arnold’s disgruntlement when America passed him over for admittedly deserved promotion in the army. But I can’t help but reflect on the irony of his life’s legacy.
If Benedict Arnold had died in his greatest achievement on the battlefield, he would have died a hero’s death.
If he had served quietly and humbly, regardless of political enemies and lack of acknowledgement, he would have lived a hero’s life.
But in following his greatest achievements with the greatest of betrayals, he lived and died only one thing in the minds of all Americans: a traitor of reprehensible proportions.
Thus it is true that the quiet, humble service in between the podiums and the trophies and the battlefields is the most telling, the most illuminating, and the most defining moment of all.
For an ordinary hero unrecognized and unknown is still a hero.
But a self-infatuated hero unrecognized and unknown is already a traitor.
Photo Credit: Carl Jones