Ev­ery sol­dier a hero? Hardly

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I loved read­ing ac­counts of Amer­i­can brav­ery dur­ing World War II. And I was proud that my un­cle had earned a Bronze Star for his ser­vice on Guadal­canal. So it came as some­thing of a shock when, in 1980, I first heard Yoda’s sum­mary of war­riors and war in “The Em­pire Strikes Back.”

Luke Sky­walker tells the wiz­ened Jedi mas­ter that he seeks “a great war­rior.” “Wars not make one great,” Yoda replies. I was struck by the truth of that state­ment as I pre­pared for a ca­reer in the mil­i­tary. Cer­tainly, mil­i­tary ser­vice (es­pe­cially the life-and-death strug­gles of com­bat) can pro­vide an oc­ca­sion for the ex­er­cise of hero­ism, but sim­ply join­ing the armed ser­vices does not make you a hero, nor does the act of serv­ing in com­bat.

Still, 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.

But does el­e­vat­ing our troops to hero sta­tus re­ally cause any harm? What’s wrong with prais­ing our troops to the rafters and adding them to our pan­theon of he­roes? A lot.

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.”

When we cre­ate a le­gion of he­roes in our minds, we blind our­selves to ev­i­dence of 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, as The Times of London re­cently re­ported may have hap­pened in Gardez, Afghanistan. Such atroc­i­ties, 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 and then cov­er­ing up the ev­i­dence. How much eas­ier it is to see the acts of vi­o­lence of our troops as nec­es­sary, ad­mirable, even noble.

Even worse, see­ing the mil­i­tary as uni­ver­sally heroic can serve to pro­long wars. Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, Ger­many dur­ing World War I. As 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?

In re­ject­ing blan­ket “hero” la­bels, we would not be in­sult­ing our troops. Quite the op­po­site: We’d be mak­ing com­mon cause with them. Most of them know the dif­fer­ence be­tween real hero­ism and ev­ery­day mil­i­tary ser­vice.

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.

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