Whose Deaths Should We Honor?
The line between "hero" and "victim" is blurry and rendered meaningless when the former is over-used
My latest for War on the Rocks, co-authorized with Pauline Shanks Kaurin, is out. It will look familiar to regular readers, as I workshopped an early draft here.
It’s titled “Whose Deaths Deserve to be Honored?” It’s long and complicated but here’s the setup:
The confluence this year of Memorial Day and commemorations of the 100,000 Americans who had died from COVID-19 should naturally have sparked a conversation about whose sacrifices should be honored by the nation. Since it did not, let’s start it here.
At first blush, the two issues could not be more different. Soldiers who die serving their country in war are heroes to be lionized. Those who die from disease are victims to be mourned. But a closer examination shows that it’s not that simple. There are many ways to serve the community and varying levels of risk entailed. Ranking them is no easy task.
The line between “hero” and “victim” is blurry and rendered meaningless when the former is over-used. While many display courage when called upon to do so, few are truly heroic. That’s true of those who serve in uniform and those who perform essential but less-heralded jobs that benefit society.
Those who continue doing hard and necessary jobs during perilous times deserve our respect. While they were just doing their jobs as they always have, they were thrust into taking risks that the rest of us could avoid. But most of them aren’t heroes; they’re just ordinary citizens carrying on with their roles in the community. Similarly, most who serve in the armed forces, even during wartime, do so honorably and deserve the thanks of a grateful nation. But few are heroes; most never have the opportunity to be.
At the same time, if ordinary citizens have an obligation to carry on their work for the good of the community, society owes them as well. In the case of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, we owe those who die in our service to take care of their families; and to those wounded, whether physically or psychologically, to take care of their medical needs. Abraham Lincoln’s charge, adopted by the Veterans Administration as its motto, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan” needs updating to reflect the service of women. But we should honor the sentiment better than we do. Moreover, Americans should demand their leaders be more cautious in sending them off to die in wars they can’t win and where the safety of the nation is not at stake.
For those in other occupations, while thanking them for their service beats ignoring their sacrifices altogether, perhaps the best way we can honor them is to mitigate their risk. Society can ensure nurses and doctors have the proper protective equipment and a well-funded national pandemic response system in place ahead of the crisis rather than forcing them to risk their lives because they didn’t. And society should require businesses to implement procedures to make it less likely that those who stock our shelves and pack our meat catch preventable diseases because their bosses cared too little about their safety.
There’s a lot in between at the link.