Not Every Soldier Is A “Hero”

Contrary to what you read on bumper stickers, retired Lt. Col William Astore argues that not every soldier is a hero. He's right.

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.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tim says:

    You may as well have said nothing.

  2. Boyd says:

    Although it may not seem like it to those outside the military, there are damn few opportunities to be a hero. 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.

    And before anyone takes issue with my previous statement, I have to emphasize that military training and camaraderie is intended to keep us from needing to be a hero.

  3. Christopher says:

    Doug, you are one warped SOB for even writing such a thing. Not sure what else you have written, but you come off as a liberal pacifist. Why don’t you try loving your country, instead of hating it? Better yet, just move.

  4. LaurenceB says:

    A similarly provocative question to ponder:

    We often hear that that our military defends our freedom. “Freedom isn’t free”, etc.

    In your lifetime, has the U.S. military ever been deployed to defend your freedom? If so, in what war? Or at what time?

    Just curious what people’s responses will be.

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    The word hero is overused. Whether it’s soldiers, firemen, or police officers the word should be reserved for the most obvious examples of going beyond the expected. That in no way lessens my appreciation for what our soldiers are doing for us every day. They deserve our respect and admiration.

    Unlike Laurence I feel they are defending our freedom as we speak and like every other day they man their posts. Defending freedom isn’t always shooting at invaders but sometimes it’s just being there ready to shoot.

  6. LaurenceB says:

    I guess I should have added that I’d rather not have people assume what my answer would be.

    I’m just asking a question.


  7. anjin-san says:

    One of the rare occasions where I agree entirely with Steve P.

  8. Brummagem Joe says:

    Colonel Astore is of course correct. Counting tires in Kansas hardly qualifies the designation “hero.” The services like any other institution have their share of the less than heroic and the downright disreputable. All that said, when actually put on the spot most people rise to the challenge although not for all the abstract notions of flag, freedom, country, and all the other bs beloved of keyboard warriors at rightwing blogs and publications. It’s much more basic. A desire to avoid getting your ass shot off and, even more important, loyalty to comrades and making sure you don’t disgrace yourself in front of them. The Colonel’s wider point is the more important. Overdoing worship of the military and militarism in general is very dangerous. The most notable case is Germany before, during and after WW 1 but there are plenty of examples. There’s a book just been published about the Dreyfus case which was entirely the product of elevating military worship and paranoia above justice and humanity.

  9. tom p says:

    My father fought in 2 wars (WW-II and Korea) he was unable to make it to the 50th reunion so his bomber mates made a video and sent it to him. Watching it I heard stories of innumerable “selfless acts of heroism” and yet as the pilot said,

    “None of us were heros, we were just 11 guys trying to get home.”

  10. anjin-san says:

    Why don’t you try loving your country, instead of hating it? Better yet, just move.

    Welcome to todays GOP Doug. Do you like what you see?

  11. LaurenceB says:

    Steve Plunk,

    I understand your sentiment completely.

    But more to the point – do you think your freedom was being defended during the Vietnam War? The war in Iraq? The invasion of Panama?

  12. anjin-san,

    I’m not even surprised.

  13. Stanley Ipcus says:

    Well said.

    It’s disgusting how people fail to see that they’ve turned soldiers into the golden idols of ancient eras. They worships soldiers up not for who they are, but for what they imagine them to be. You want to call a soldier a hero? Then you better have some damn good evidence, other than that they had nothing else going for them in life so they decided to join the military.

    Show us men and women who actually create–not destroy–something through their sacrifice, and then you’ll have shown us a hero.

  14. steve says:

    I remember all the letters we used to receive during Desert Storm telling us we were heroes. Really, we were just doing our jobs. Along with Boyd, I think most of my fellow soldiers were capable of heroic deeds if required, but it never happened for us. That was the result of good planning, hard work and a little luck. I still go out of my way to thank those who currently serve. I feel no need to turn them all into heroes. (I dislike the sports hero thing even more. Again, they are rare. Performing well with the reward of huge sums of money doesnt seem heroic.)


  15. just me says:

    I tend to agree that we brush every military member with the “hero” brush, and I think there is a risk in this. Military members are humans, and when they fail, they fail to not only live up to regular standards, but they also tend to tarnish the pedestal we have put them on by declaring them automatic heros. I would imagine most military members don’t want to be on the pedestal. They certainly deserve respect and honor, and at times at a personal level they may have earned the label of hero, but I am not sure just donning the uniform in and of itself makes one a hero.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s a pendulum swing from Vietnam. But it’s really gone on long enough. Now it’s not about the soldiers, it’s about a sort of competitive, politicized, mawkish quasi-patriotism.

    I grew up in a Vietnam era military family and have known quite a few soldiers. My impression is that they do their level best to avoid becoming heros. Heros have a tendency to end up dead and soldiers, like most people, much prefer being alive.

    It irritates me what we’ve done to soldiers with this deification. We have this highly professional military full of superbly trained men and women doing their jobs. They have a right to be proud of their training and the work they do. Treating them as demi-gods actually devalues the professionalism they’ve achieved. They aren’t mythical beings possessed of magical powers. They weren’t bitten by radioactive spiders. They are men and women who have worked their butts off to get to be the best military in modern history.

    From among that highly professional crew some few do rise to the needs of the moment and do heroic deeds. Those are the guys who other soldiers see as heros, and those are they guys who earned that description.

  17. john personna says:

    In a volunteer force, surely you get some points for signing up.

    (Comparisons to draft-wars have that mis-match.)

  18. just me says:

    Oh I think you get points for being willing to sign up when you don’t have to. It certainly is a sacrifice on the part of volunteer (given the fact that unlike any other job a person takes on they have no real say in where they go, when they go and they don’t have the option to quit if they don’t like it). Not sure that equals heroism, but I think there is a difference between honoring and respecting a person for their willingness to serve, and putting them up on a pedestal they probably don’t want to be on anyway.

  19. Juneau: says:

    Unless proven to have not upheld the military code of duty and honor, every soldier is more of a hero than the great majority of those who post on this blog – including the author.

  20. Juneau: says:

    Now it’s not about the soldiers, it’s about a sort of competitive, politicized, mawkish quasi-patriotism.

    And you would know about true patriotism… how?

  21. Juneau: says:

    Mataconis et al. : You know, all of you try to portray yourselves as though you possess some exclusive form of super-sophistication when it comes to these types of issues. The exchange above between anjin and mataconis is a very good example of this.

    You intellectually sneer at those that believe in something which you have either no connection to, or no understanding of; concepts such as traditional patriotism and admiration of those who voluntarily serve in dangerous capacities. Judging from your various writings and musings, I have no doubt that you find these concepts are pure “emotionalism”; at best being quaint and naive, and, at worst, being the product of some poor, under-developed intellect.

    What you fail to either accept or understand is this. You are ever- eager to take away the notion of traditional heroes, but the only one this benefits is – you. It is a way of supporting your personal ideal that proper analysis of an issue excludes both tradition, as well as emotion.

    We need heroes. Our young people need heroes to look up to and aspire to. Your cynicism is of no benefit, perceived or otherwise, to anyone except – you. If you are determined to steal them away, what will you offer in their place?

    You folks seem to be all about tearing down tradition, in a wide variety of social areas. But if one tears down that which is admirable, and has nothing of equal value to replace it with, then he is simply a wrecker. The only good to be realized in this approach is when those who disagree decide to stand and fight.

    The fact that the people who are admired don’t look upon themselves as heroes is of no importance – it is simply another reason to hold them in esteem for their willingness to sacrifice. Leave our heroes alone – even if you think you’re too intelligent to believe in them.

  22. Michael Reynolds says:


    You don’t get it.

    If every soldier is a hero, then what do we call the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers?

    See the problem? It’s about devaluing language.

    It’s as if we began calling every tall person a giant. What word is left to call a real giant?

    By calling every soldier a hero we actually deprive soldiers of the ability to honor the bravest among them. What word does a truck driver at a rear base use for a combat soldier who mans a 50 caliber all alone and holds off an attack?

    You aren’t arguing for the soldiers, you’re arguing against them. Because it’s not about your emotions, it’s about their actions. And when they do something extraordinary they deserve to wear that word “hero” and have it mean something. Not have it reduced to just another label used for purposes of partisan cheap shots.

  23. Juneau: says:

    It’s as if we began calling every tall person a giant. What word is left to call a real giant?

    A giant among giants.

    Now that answer is somewhat tongue in cheek, but my point is this; how do I devalue the language if I honor someone who does extraordinary things that are to be admired? Even if they don’t strictly deserve the full force of my admiration? And that includes willfully serving in a capacity where you know you may sacrifice your life.

    Plus, your assessment excludes entirely the concepts that service men and women pledge to – duty, honor, and country. Regardless of the quite personal motivations during combat of simply staying alive, or not letting your buddies down, the military personnel take these pledges very seriously.

    I truly believe that cynicism is the main motivation for restricting the “hero” label. After all, the discussion was pointedly about military personnel. We seem to have no problem describing struggling mothers as heroes when they overcome the odds to raise conscientious and productive children, or other “non-military” people.

    The mothers deserve to be labeled as heroes in their own right and, if your point were truly based on a “devaluation” foundation, then you should just as easily be asking why we should call those single mothers heroes. I don’t think you’re prepared to do that, so why do it with the soldiers, firemen, police officers, etc?

    Again, we should not be tearing down something admirable, simply for the sake of not giving “undue” credit. Those that don’t deserve the title, know it.

  24. Rock says:

    At some point in your future someone you know or love will ask you something like this:

    “Hey Grandpa, what did you do during The War on Terror?”

    Will your response be: “I was a culture warrior, holed up behind a desk in Virginia, pontificating on a political blog, complaining about the heroes who served our country.”

    “So you’re a Sunshine Patriot, huh Grandpa?”

    “Yes, son. Now go study your Arabic lessons.”

    The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. – Thomas Paine

  25. john personna says:

    “Rock” makes me think that every soldier is a hero, so that the population can be cowards.

    The one in a million chance we have of actually being harmed by terrorists is too great … so lets send some heroes off to die.

  26. Rock says:

    Did those who died in the Twin Towers feel the same way about terrorists as they dove out of the windows? If they did I’ll bet they changed their minds just before impact with the sidewalk. Maybe they were hoping for a one in a million chance to survive the fall.

  27. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***The one in a million chance we have of actually being harmed by terrorists is too great … so lets send some heroes off to die.*** Because our hero’s are out hunting them down and blowing their ******* heads off!

    ***In a volunteer force, surely you get some points for signing up.***anyone who volunteers to one day give his life for my punk$$ is my hero, when they do it during the war on terror x that by a trillion.

    If you want to say those who have severed in combat have and deserve a different definition or the true definition of a hero, well of course they do, errg…..

  28. My response is here: “What makes a hero?

    Lots of really, really stupid comments left on this piece, but Stanley Ipcus’ comment is the most brain dead of all. Enjoy the freedom you merely consume, Stan, ’cause you sure aren’t producing any.

    US Army, retired

  29. Juneau: says:

    Enjoy the freedom you merely consume, Stan, ’cause you sure aren’t producing any.

    Ouch! That’s going to leave a mark… And from a real soldier no less.

    Short, powerful, and to the point.

  30. john personna says:

    Rock, there is a Time Magazine article that covers it all in much more detail than I can in a short comment. The fact is we respond differently to risks that we can easily visualize and to deaths that seem horrific. A fully televised attack on 3000 people fits that bill. 30000 dying in traffic accidents (or DUIs) do not.

    I’d encourage you to read this and think about it:,9171,1562978,00.html

  31. Juneau: says:

    john personna: The fact is we respond differently to risks that we can easily visualize and to deaths that seem horrific.

    This is certainly true, and personal experience is enough for most people to understand the concept – no need to read a study about it. However, it is completely unrelated to the way a nation should react to an attack on its citizens, and the continuing threat posed by the radical Islamic religious cadre.

    Everything is most certainly NOT relative. And no amount of psychoanalysis about the differences between “qualitative” tragedy and “quantitative” tragedy will make it relative.

    There is a perfectly clear distinction between accidental death and homicidal death. THIS 3000 is not a statistical number that can be placed in an insurance actuarial table – it was a massacre. Don’t attempt to equate the two.

  32. Christopher says:

    Great post, Juneau. Only an idiot would try and equate the two.

    How is it that liberals are such pacifists? That they believe they can creat a perfect world? i.e. if we just make nice, our enemies won’t bother us; or: even if we tax the heck out of businesses and producers in this country they will go right on producing to fund government welfare no matter what.

  33. john personna says:

    I’m afraid I read that as unreasonable fear, Juneau. You are so scared by those remote odds that you must go to the other side of the world to stamp it out. Well, the heroes go. That is the distinction I am trying to draw.

    I’m not actually a liberal. I don’t think this is a perfect world. I can just accept 1 in a million odds without asking some kid to die for me. Doesn’t that make me stronger?

    You want to know what civilian heroes are like? Try the Battle of Brittan, with massed air raids on cities, thousands dying every night, and people carrying on. That was a brave population.

  34. john personna says:

    (I’m not suggesting we dismantle the FBI, or any of the security apparatus that is actually working for us. I’m saying don’t count on stupid wars that don’t change your odds anyway. I think James Joiner is on the same page with that, that at this point Iraq and Afghanistan are not making us safer. He just might not be as willing to say, I as I do, that they are charades to make frightened people feel safer.)

  35. Juneau: says:

    I think James Joiner is on the same page with that, that at this point Iraq and Afghanistan are not making us safer.

    This is like saying that we should have pulled back in WW2 after we decimated the japanese fleet at the battle of Midway. Why? To give them a chance to regroup and attack us again? Millions more Americans died in the Pacific theater after that battle, because it was realized that once an enemy has shown clearly that they are going to reach out and hit you if given the opportunity, the only rational action possible is to take the fight to them. Period.

    We’re not fighting the citizens of Iraq or Afghanistan – we’re fighting radical muslim fanatics who want to capture us all into the “Greater Islamic Co-prosperity Sphere.” Much better to fight them there, than here.

  36. john personna says:

    No, you idiot, it is not like pulling back after the battle of Midway. Al Queda does not control half the Pacific.

    Let’s be clear. You have something like 1 in a million chance of dying in a terrorist attack, and you are asking some kid to risk his life to reduce that … to what? Would 1 in two million change your life expectancy? Would it change your fear factor?

    (Going in and demonstrating our strength, knocking down the Taliban government probably did improve our odds, but staying did not. It should have been quick. We should have just said “don’t make me come back here.”

    Or here’s one I know you can’t handle: George Herbert Walker Bush made the right call in 1991. Go in, show you can kick down the sand castle … and then go home.)

  37. john personna says:

    (You should see from the above that I am not actually a “pacifist” either, as Christopher misjudged.)

  38. Juneau: says:

    You have something like 1 in a million chance of dying in a terrorist attack, and you are asking some kid to risk his life to reduce that …

    Number 1 – I didn’t ask , they volunteered. They, you see, have a backbone and a desire to protect and serve. You simply want to assume they are all pie-eyed young fools who have fallen victim to romantic notions of war. You have no idea…

    Number 2 – You have no idea what the chances are of someone dying in a terrorist attack, because you have no idea of how many plots have been either thwarted or discovered. Simply based on the ones we know about there have been a lot.

    Number 3 – Your idea of being “balanced” because you are not asking to disband the FBI, etc. is nothing short of foolish. They’re not doing it. We got extreme;y LUCKY on both Christmas day and the recent “sputter” bomb in New York. Everyone knows it wasn’t skill.

    Number 4 – The “isolationists” of pre-WW2, much like yourself, would prefer to think in terms of their personal safety rather than principle and practicality.

    No thank you…

  39. john personna says:

    I didn’t ask , they volunteered.

    That is about the worst thing you could have said.

  40. tom p says:

    ***I didn’t ask , they volunteered.***

    ***That is about the worst thing you could have said.***

    JP: said it all.

  41. Juneau: says:

    That is about the worst thing you could have said.

    And why, exactly, is that the worst thing I could have said? As far as I can see, both you and tom p have just jumped into another universe. Kindly explain your (supposed) grounds for …. what ?

  42. Juneau says:

    Ahhhh. The vindicating silence that ensues when the feeble parting rejoinder has proven to be without merit or defense.

  43. Wayne says:

    You are mistaking the difference between heroic acts and heroic professions. Firefighter s, EMTs, Doctors and such are considered by many to heroic profession. Does that mean they all have or will save a life during their career? No. Does that mean that non are doing it solely for the money? No. However the very nature of their profession brings them respect as it should.

    What constitutes a Hero is pretty much up to the individual. To Lt. Col. William Astore it is what his mother did. Others may not. Others consider a sports figure like Jordan to be a Hero and some may not. If you don’t want to consider the military as a Heroic profession so be it. Just don’t get into the face of the people who do.

    I spent my time in the combat arms but I sure and hell appreciated all those who supported me. Did they suffer as much as me? No but they suffer in their own way. The so call “glory” part of combat is not that glorious but it is not so much the action most people respect but the willingness of the person to do what needs to be done. Wither it is engaging the enemy or in support of those who do.

  44. Wayne says:

    By the way, IMO the Hero label does get overused but I it doesn’t bother me a whole lot. What does bother me is politicians and some others using the military for PR reason. Granted some are genuine but others come off as phony.

  45. Blakenator says:

    Wow, its easy to pick out the veterans in this thread. I pursued a career in Naval aviation and none of my peer group considers ourselves heroes. Sometimes things got a little dangerous but we were doing our job.

  46. Wayne says:

    Same applies for most medals and awards. Most are just doing their jobs and couldn’t care less. However there are those who think that a person’s should be acknowledged for their actions and those who appreciate receiving that acknowledgement. Come to think of it, most people I know like a little recognition once in awhile.

    Most of the pilots I have known were a bit cocky.