I have written a number of blogs about what does and what does not make a “hero.” We use the term a great deal these days, usually attaching it willy-nilly to those in the armed forces. But I would apply it to those, in and out of uniform, who choose to do difficult tasks quietly, often daily, and in the face of criticism from others. In fact, I would regard as heroic those few in uniform who risk court-martial by daring to question what they were asked to do as members of the armed forces supposedly in the line of what they are told is their “duty.” I do not choose to apply the word “hero” across the board to those in uniform. Many of those folks, especially those in combat, are indeed brave and risk their lives in the face of fierce opposition. But it is not clear that the cause they fight for is worth their risking their lives or, worse yet, dying for. Cynics might say that the “freedom” they protect is the freedom of corporations to make huge profits and that freedom never actually filters down to the rest of us who seem to wander about in confusion at the bottom of the pyramid of power.
Our tendency to adulate the soldier, to label those in camouflage who seem to be everywhere these days and who are touted as brave risk-takers, is disturbing and a bit stupid. We find them conspicuously present at nearly every professional sporting event; we are surrounded by countless yellow ribbons as part of the “Support Our Troops” campaign; we note the military’s sponsorship of high school sporting events such as the all-star football game every year; and we cannot avoid the countless references to our “heroes” on television in commercials for the armed forces and even for insurance! One might say we are inundated by messages depicting armed servicemen and women as central characters in a global melodrama in which they play a pivotal role in a war that has never been declared. As noted, there are those among the folks in uniform who do in fact take risks and with whom I would not choose to change places. But the vast majority of them do the mundane, everyday tasks of just muddling through and following orders for enough money to get by so they can complete their commitment and learn the skills required to get a paying job when they are back “outside.” Many have simply joined up because they didn’t know what else to do, or because they were sold a bill of goods by the recruiting sergeant (I know a couple of these myself), or because they simply wanted the enlistment bonus so they could buy a new truck (I also know a couple of those). In any event, while it is impossible to question the motivation of every individual who “joins up,” it is possible to attempt to keep a balanced perspective and realize that those in uniform are pretty much like those who are not in uniform — some are heroes, some are not; they are just doing their job and, like the rest of us, they may even hate it. We know, for example, that the suicide rate among those in the armed forces is unusually high and this is cause for alarm. But, then, the suicide rate among college students is also quite high and we cannot draw much in the way of a conclusion from either of these facts, except to find them disturbing. Perhaps it is simply the case that being young and having to face an uncertain future is becoming too great a burden for many in this crowded culture of ours.
But in the end, we would be well advised to remember that those in uniform are not necessarily any more “heroic” than the rest of us — in many cases less so than, say, the unmarried mother of three who has to take care of the house and raise her kids on starvation wages. We bandy about words like “heroic” at the risk of draining the word of all meaning and ignoring the fact that there are those who are truly heroic while others simply wear camouflage and go about in groups while we bow and scrape and sing their praises, assuming that they are all exceptional young men and women. In a word, the mindless adulation of a group who happens to wear a uniform is jingoistic and takes us part of the way toward a militaristic culture that simply assumes that those in uniform know what they are doing and that what they are doing should never be questioned by those “civilians” who must judge their actions from outside the group. It might be wise to remind ourselves from time to time that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson (even George Washington) opposed the idea of a standing army on this continent, and with good reason.