Not Every Soldier Is A “Hero”
That’s the argument that retired Lt. Col. William Astore makes in a provocative piece that appeared in the Los Angeles Times last week:
Ever since the events of 9/11, there’s been an almost religious veneration of U.S. service members as “Our American Heroes” (as a well-intentioned sign puts it at my local post office). But a snappy uniform — or even dented body armor — is not a magical shortcut to hero status.
A hero is someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place. Heroes, of course, come in all sizes, shapes, ages and colors, most of them looking nothing like John Wayne or John Rambo or GI Joe (or Jane).
I come from a family of firefighters, yet our hero was my mother, a homemaker who raised five kids and endured without complaint the ravages of cancer in the 1970s, with its then crude chemotherapy regimen, its painful cobalt treatments and the collateral damage of loss of hair, vitality and lucidity. In refusing to rail against her fate, she set an example of selfless courage and heroism I shall never forget.
Whether in civilian life or in the military, heroes are rare — indeed, all too rare. Heck, that’s the reason we celebrate them. They’re the very best of us, which means they can’t be all of us.
That would seem to be a statement of fact, and yet what James Joyner has referred to in other pieces here at OTB as the deification and fetishism of the military in the years since September 11th. As Astore points out, that isn’t necessarily a good thing:
By making our military a league of heroes, we ensure that the brutalizing aspects and effects of war will be played down. In celebrating isolated heroic feats, we often forget that war is guaranteed to degrade humanity as well.
“War,” as writer and cultural historian Louis Menand noted, “is specially terrible not because it destroys human beings, who can be destroyed in plenty of other ways, but because it turns human beings into destroyers.”
Seeing the military as universally heroic can serve to prolong wars. Consider, for example, Germany during World War I, a subject I’ve studied and written about. As the historian Robert Weldon Whalen noted of those German soldiers of nearly a century ago: “The young men in field-grey were, first of all, not just soldiers, but young heroes, Junge Helden. They fought in the heroes’ zone, Heldenzone, and performed heroic deeds, Heldentaten. Wounded, they shed hero’s blood, Heldenblut, and if they died, they suffered a hero’s death, Heldentod, and were buried in a hero’s grave, Heldengrab.” The overuse of “Helden” as a modifier to ennoble German militarism during World War I undoubtedly prolonged the war, for how could the government make peace with the villains who had killed these heroes? Wouldn’t their deaths then have been in vain?
I think it’s a fair statement that everyone who died in World War One died in vain, and that the world would have been a far better place had it not happened, or had it been ended in a way far less punitive toward Germany and that respected traditional European politics. Perhaps if it had, the world would have been spared the destruction of World War II.
On Astore’s broader point, though, I think he’s largely correct, and it’s not an insult to the men and women serving to say that not all of them are, or will ever be, heroes. As Astore points out, they are the ones who already know the truth:
Whatever nationality they may be, troops at the front know the score. Even as our media and our culture seek to elevate them into the pantheon of demigods, the men and women at the front are focused on doing their jobs and returning home with their bodies, their minds and their buddies intact.
So, next time you talk to our soldiers, Marines, sailors or airmen, do them (and your country) a small favor. Thank them for their service. Let them know you appreciate them. Just don’t call them heroes.
Sounds like a good idea to me.
UPDATE (James Joyner): Commenter Boyd (who I believe was a career sailor) nails it with this:
While I firmly believe that a significant majority of our service personnel would act as heroes if they found themselves in that type of situation, relatively few ever get the chance.
The problem with so few people having served at all is that they tend to be awe-inspired by those who do/have, because what they know is from the war movies or the news. Even in a combat zone, service tends to take on a level of routine. Firefights — which is what war is in the movies — are incredibly rare and of short duration.
And Boyd’s also right that the military strives very much to make heroism unnecessary. Well executed plans, backed by good intelligence, superior force, preparatory aerial bombardment or indirect fire, and the like mean that American soldiers find themselves in an Audie Murphy Situation very rarely. And that’s a damn fine thing.