July 26, 2010

Fighting Wars Won’t Make You a Hero

My father, who proudly served in the military (partially so I would never have to) has said this to me before: that not everyone who dons a uniform is a hero, and not every hero wears a uniform. And that just because someone’s served in the armed forces doesn’t make them a hero or someone automatically worthy of praise and respect – respect has to be earned by anyone to anyone, and the clothes they wear or the life they’ve chosen shouldn’t automatically grant that to anyone.

Part of the issue here is the gradual turn of our armed services into a “hero class,” where the civilian population automatically and immediately bows to any opinion offered by anyone who’s served in the military for any period of time for any reason. And while there is much to respect about someone who’s chosen to serve our country and potentially – at a moment’s call – put their lives on the line for our freedoms and liberties, that doesn’t automatically make them a “hero.”

William Astore describes this incredibly well, while balancing the appropriate respect and appreciation for the men and women of our military and the life that they choose to lead in service of their countrymen, with the immediate refutation of the “I was a soldier so I know how the world works and how things should be” mentality that I for one hear incredibly often from people on the political right.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone claim to have served during wartime as a way to not have to use facts or reality to base their political beliefs; someone who uses the fact that they either are in the service or were in the service as a way to automatically shut down a political debate.

I’ve said as much to people before: that being a solider doesn’t make you any more or less qualified to be a politician or even command a conflict any more than being a police officer makes you qualified to be a state governor or even be the police chief. Sure you have insight into one particular area of importance, but – as my dad would say – being a infantryman on the ground is admirable, but it doesn’t necessarily make you qualified to be a general.

It doesn’t preclude you from it, but it doesn’t automatically make you one – so saying “I know how the war should be fought/I know how all wars should be fought/I know whether war is right or wrong because I was in XXXX conflict” simply isn’t rational, or even remotely true, unless by saying “I was in XXXX conflict” you’re really saying “I was in command.”

Astore goes on though, pointing out that there’s more to the term “hero” than our culture has diluted it to be these days:

In local post offices, as well as on local city streets here in central Pennsylvania, I see many reminders that our troops are “hometown heroes.” Official military photos of these young enlistees catch my eye, a few smiling, most looking into the camera with faces of grim resolve tinged with pride at having completed basic training. Once upon a time, as the military dean of students at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, I looked into such faces in the flesh, congratulating young service members for their effort and spirit.

I was proud of them then; I still am. But here’s a fact I suspect our troops might be among the first to embrace: the act of joining the military does not make you a hero, nor does the act of serving in combat. Whether in the military or in civilian life, 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.

Still, even if elevating our troops to hero status has become something of a national mania, is there really any harm done? What’s wrong with praising our troops to the rafters? What’s wrong with adding them to our pantheon of heroes?

The short answer is: There’s a good deal wrong, and a good deal of harm done, not so much to them as to us.

To wit:

*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. “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.”

When we create a legion of heroes in our minds, we blind ourselves to evidence of their destructive, sometimes atrocious, behavior. Heroes, after all, don’t commit atrocities. They don’t, for instance, dig bullets out of pregnant women’s bodies in an attempt to cover up deadly mistakes. They don’t fire on a good Samaritan and his two children as he attempts to aid a grievously wounded civilian. Such atrocities and murderous blunders, so common to war’s brutal chaos, produce cognitive dissonance in the minds of many Americans who simply can’t imagine their “heroes” killing innocents. How much easier it is to see the acts of violence of our troops as necessary, admirable, even noble.

*By making our military generically heroic, we act to prolong our wars.

I couldn’t put it better myself.

[ Fighting Wars Won’t Make You a Hero ]
Source: TomDispatch.com (via AlterNet)

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