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.
Jingoism is one of the ugliest words in our vocabulary. It is often said America is not at war, our military is. So, I think much of the yellow ribbon wearing is out of guilt that you are fighting our battles and I am not. I also find it offensive as per the old Creedence song about not being a senator or fortunate’s son, that we have “hawks” so eager to fight something, anything, even if it is not known to be the right thing. Before we sentence young people to die, as you note, we should know why we are risking their lives. Syria, e.g., is a modern day Catch 22. Great post, Hugh. BTG
And thanks for adding depth to my analysis — as always.
Very interesting post, and one I agree with.
Have you thought that perhaps this era’s making hero’s of everyone in uniform is an overcompensation for the Vietnam era service men and women, who were universally despised and hated, and as you note, the majority of which had nothing to do with the “war” and were just going about their mundane days in their mundane jobs.
I’ve actually made note to people who’ve “Thanked me for my past service” that this was in dire contrast to the negative, at times hateful responses I received for being a serviceman 40+ years ago.
Thanks for saying things that should be said.
Barney, I believe you are correct. And, thanks for your service in Vietnam and am glad you survived to talk about it. BTG
I was never actually in Vietnam, just served during that time. I will never forget being jeered because I was in uniform. Others of my time certainly had it much worse.
The powers-that-be are making sure that doesn’t happen again!
I do think it is a concerted effort to polish the image of the servicemen and women after Vietnam. And they are doing a remarkably successful job of it!
I agree with you, Hugh. I’ve had this conversation with friends before and it didn’t go well. The word “hero” means nothing now. If simply donning the uniform makes you a hero, what is the person who actually performs a heroic act? Superhero? Demigod? My father and my stepfather are veterans, and I have friends and family members serving in Afghanistan. I respect and admire people who volunteer to serve this country, but I don’t call them all heroes. Another thing that annoys me in the political arena…the GOP certainly plays up the military service of their candidates, like John McCain, but folks like Max Cleland and Tammy Duckworth are criticized for any mention of their service and considerable sacrifice.
Thanks, Amaya, for adding fuel to the fire. You have to admit it is one hellova PR job!
” I would regard as heroic those few in uniform who risk court-martial by daring to question what they were asked to do ”
i admire anyone who stands up for what is wrong. thank goodness there are some who still have a conscience. z