Ordinary Heroes

Principles are the main ingredient of courage. A man with principles can get the better of fear.

Scott Turow’s novel, Ordinary Heroes, is not what you might expect, one of his legal thrillers. Rather it is a saga of World War II, resulting in what Turow reminds us were 40 million deaths in Europe and 20 million in Asia.

The story begins as the son of David Dubin chances upon his deceased father’s account of his exploits during the war. What he learns stuns him: his father was court-martialed during the last days of the war. “Court-martialed! The last thing I could imagine of my tirelessly proper father was being charged with a serious crime.”

As a member of the Third Army’s legal team, Dubin was ordered to arrest Robert Martin, who was on an unauthorized mission for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a wartime intelligence agency, the forerunner of the CIA. Dubin found the major, but then deliberately allowed him to flee.

At his court-martial Dubin was convicted and sentenced. But shortly thereafter, without any official explanation, the verdict and charges were withdrawn. Dubin was set free when it became known that Martin was on a mission that had it been successful would have benefited the Allies significantly.

Turow’s characterizations are one of best features of the book. There is the complex and bombastic General Teedle who ordered Dubin to arrest Robert Martin. There is Martin, himself, and the group of resistance fighters who followed him. Among them is the mysterious Gita Lodz who dispenses words of wisdom throughout the novel. There is also Biddy, Dubin’s side kick and best pal, who it turns out is a light skinned black man from the South.

Who are we, Dubin, but the stories we tell about ourselves, particularly if we accent them?

Turow’s depictions of Dubin’s combat experiences are vivid. Dubin suddenly finds himself put in command of a rifle company during the Battle of the Bulge. It's freezing, snowing, with the enemy across the way, the casualties and horror. As the Germans begin to overrun his troops, he tells them to lie down and play dead. After the battle, he was celebrated for a strategy that he knows was simply cowardice.

"I had given my men saving advice mostly because it was what I had wanted to do, to lie down like a child and hope that the assault -- the war -- would be over soon. True, it was the wiser course. But I had taken it because at the center of my soul, I was a coward. And for this I was now being saluted."

Whatever happened to Robert Martin? Who is Gita Lotz anyway? What was the mission Martin was planning to undertake that allowed Dubin to be set free? And what became of the high-spirited Biddy? The answers are in the pages of Ordinary Heroes.

So much of civilization, Dubin, is merely the recovery periods between wars. We build things up and then tear them down again. Look at poor Europe. Some moments I find myself thinking about all the fighting that’s gone on here and expect blood to come welling out of the ground.