In my June 24 column Daily Camera column (www.dailycamera.com), I let some current military and vets do the talking about why they don’t like to be called “heroes” en masse. In short, they realize that such displays are less about honoring the men and women who serve in the military than soothing the guilty consciences of the 99 percent of Americans who do not serve. This week we take a look at why the “heroicization” of the military is a dangerous trend. There’s a book’s worth of fascinating argument — and counter-argument — on this topic but this will have to suffice for now.
In many ways, the current cultural trend of valorizing the military and costless “support for the troops” is entwined with the American experience in Vietnam.
America certainly turned away from its military after the disaster of Vietnam. The nation inevitably connected that brutal, misguided war with the warriors — and their generals. We felt burned and misled, and known atrocities made our cause something less than noble in most people’s eyes.
But the word “hero” raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions. Conor Friedersdorf said it better than I can in an incisive essay in The Atlantic: “(I)f bestowing the title hero has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the cause or mission, we’ll have to grant the honorific to individuals who took part in deeply immoral acts… and yet, if the mission does matter, do we really want to deny the heroism of a GI who jumped on a grenade to save his platoon, even if we think the platoon’s presence in country X was immoral?”
And when politicians got ahold of things (don’t they always?) things get sticky. Ronald Reagan explicitly sought to restore America’s pride even as he subtly changed the way we think about the military.
“Reagan was establishing support for the troops — as opposed to actual service with them — as the new standard for civic responsibility. To anyone making that choice Reagan granted the status of patriot, idealist and hero; of citizens he asked only that they affirm that designation,” writes retired U.S. Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and self-proclaimed conservative.
And, as many have pointed out, if everyone involved in this war or that — Vietnam, Grenada (don’t laugh), Iraq I or II, Afghanistan — is a “hero,” then how can the enterprise be anything less than heroic, or at least noble? The ultimate effect is a subtle (or not so) suppression of a citizen’s duty to question his or her government, especially when it comes to something as sobering as war.
“The benefit of conflating the war and the warrior is to sustain support for the war, or at least create barriers to criticism,” Bacevich says. “The implication is that to criticize the war is to abandon the soldier.”
Bill Astore, a 20-year Air Force vet, has written eloquently on the problems of “heroicization.”
“Yoda says to Luke, ‘Wars make not one great.’ What gets me is that the concept of hero is tied too closely to war. American society tends to see war as theater in which certain men and women can demonstrate their heroic traits, in a way that, to me, dangerously ennoble war,” he told me when we spoke in 2011. “What I fear is, because we see military action as conducive to creating heroes, we tend to prolong it, even ennoble it.”
But valorizing the troops is something that works better for politicians and guilty citizens than military men and women. They are trained to fight, and they will fight as asked. Some even revel in it; combat is a rush. But all in all, war isn’t very comfortable and many of them are cynical about all the cheering when we send them off into battle.
“A very small percentage of Americans are in the military. … When you call everyone a hero, it’s a way of avoiding having to deal with that fact,” says Army Capt. Don Gomez, who re-upped in 2011 after earning his master’s degree (and two previous hitches in Iraq). “It seems like if we had a really patriotic country, the military would be filled by the best Americans. It would be selective, and it’s not that way.”
But even as members of the military look askance at hollow praise reflexively offered up by all us spectator civilians, some admit that they’ve started to see themselves as a breed apart. Better than the rest of us, just as we tell them — and there is a danger in that.
Karl Marlantes, recipient of the Navy Cross for his service in Vietnam — that’s the second highest military honor you can bestow upon a Marine, short only of the Medal of Honor — has written a powerful book, “What It Is Like to Go to War” that every American, veteran, civilian or active military, should read. If the military begins to see itself as exceptional, like the Praetorian guard of Scipio Africanus, dangers loom.
“I believe we have the danger of moving that way. Right now in the current military … there is no danger of a coup. But so far as (troops) are being alienated from the general population, it’s dangerous for the republic,” he says. “If we want to be an empire, then good, fine, go ahead. But I prefer to live in a republic.”
Army Capt. Gary Stump of Niwot, who calls himself conservative, sees the same danger: “A military isolated from the general population, a disaffected military, can rally behind somebody who comes in at a time of great national strain. Somebody who bucks up and wants to take the military under their wing. They are more prone to doing things that aren’t so good for liberty overall.”
So what’s the answer? People like Gomez, Marlantes and even a few brave Washington politicians agree: It’s time to return to the idea of the citizen-soldier. And that means a draft.
In the pre-Vietnam era, “The rotation of citizen-soldiers through the ranks and the leavening presence of veterans throughout American society obviated the need for myths, indeed, made it all but impossible to idealize war or military service,” Bacevich notes.
Marlantes argues that it’s immoral to force someone to kill if he or she doesn’t want to (see Vietnam). That’s OK, he says: “You can do national service if you don’t want to be a part of the military.” And if not enough people take the military option? “Then that war may not be worth fighting.”
In short, we have separated the military from “us,” and pretended that yellow ribbons and lofty labels are honor enough for their service. Not so, they say.
And the cultural pressure to engage in valorization may actually result in sending those same “heroes” into dubious battle — in too many cases, death and permanent disfigurement, whether physical or psychological.
The answer is to tear down the wall between the military and the rest of us.
Not going to happen, alas. It’s too easy to simply “support” those we send into battle and at no cost to ourselves.