In 2011 I had the privilege of speaking by Skype with U.S. Army Capt. Don Gomez, who was in graduate school in London between hitches. We were talking about his remarkable New York Times blog post, “When Hero Rings Hollow.”
His refreshingly honest piece blew a big hole in the comfortable notion that slapping yellow ribbons on our SUVs, clapping for military personnel in airports and specifically, referring to all who serve in the military as “heroes,” somehow does great honor to the troops.
Wrote Don: “I’m not the only veteran who feels skeptical when he or she is placed in the hero bin along with every other service member from the past 10 years. … (T)hese are soldiers. Soldiers are human beings. There are good ones and bad ones. A few do amazing, heroic things. The rest do their jobs – incredible, unique jobs – but jobs, nonetheless. Some perform happily, others grudgingly. And I argue that most feel embarrassed when lauded as heroes.”
I contacted Don because some of those ideas play a part in a book I’m writing about my grandfather, Alexander Bonnyman, Jr., who was awarded the Medal of Honor after he was killed at Tarawa on Nov. 22, 1943. Like every one of the score of active military or veteran I’ve interviewed during my research, Don believes that the promiscuous application of “hero” has a lot more to do with making us civilians feel better about ourselves than honoring members of the military. They know heroism, and it doesn’t apply to everyone.
But woe betide the man who says so out loud — particularly among men who have not themselves served in the military.
Just ask MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who was bombarded with criticism and threats when he expressed concern about how we overuse the word.
“I feel uncomfortable with the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war,” Hayes said. “And I obviously don’t want to desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that has fallen. Obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is tremendous heroism. … But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that’s problematic, but maybe I’m wrong about that.”
In an eloquent follow-up comment, Hayes wrestled with the question, noting that military volunteers submit “totally to what the electorate or people in power are going to decide about how to use your body, but they do that all of full volition. And if the word hero is not right, there’s something about it that’s noble, right?”
The critics pounced, branding him a traitor and putting words in his mouth. For example, Hayes “thinks our soldiers are suckers and fools at best, brutal sociopaths at worst,” wrote Kurt Schlicter of Breitbart.com. Never mind that he didn’t.
But there are so many problems with the “heroicization” of the military that it’s hard to know where to begin. (The quotes in this column are taken from dozens of conversations I’ve had with active-duty military and veterans in the last two years; not a single one is comfortable with the “hero” craze.)
I begin with a simple question: If my grandfather, who by all accounts conducted himself with “conspicuous gallantry” at Tarawa, is a “hero,” then what does it mean when we apply the same label to a guy who joined the Army to see the world, maybe earn a little college money, and spent his hitch as a cook at Fort Benning?
“It’s cheapened when you refer to everybody as a hero, and it tarnishes the people who truly earned it,” said Tennessee businessman Wes Stowers, who flew P38s and F-4s in the post-Vietnam Air Force, when we spoke in 2011.
And is it any more accurate to bestow honorifics than to apply ill-considered negative labels (think “baby killer”)? The military is a group of human beings. It has its saints and charlatans, liars and truth tellers, thieves and heroes. Those who have served in the military know that better than the rest of us. To call them all heroes is simply a lie.
So why in the world do we civilians feel such a compulsion to commit empty gestures of “appreciation” that aren’t really appreciated?
Every one of my correspondents agrees on one factor: Guilt. After all, less than 1 percent of us serve in the military now and less than 10 percent of Americans have ever served. But boy are we ardent to send our armed forces into war: In 2001, just 22 percent of Americans opposed military action in Afghanistan, according to an Ipsos poll; in 2003 just 27 percent of Americans objected to sending troops to fight in Iraq.
“A lot of the men who are the loudest with ‘support the troops’ tend to be the ones perfectly capable of serving, but don’t,” says U.S. Army Capt. Gary Stump, who recently returned to active duty after earning a master’s degree at CU. “That’s partly why they’re loud.”
Dan Sidles, an Army vet who served two tours in Iraq, notes the plethora of country songs about the wonders of war that crop up when politicians start another war. (Google Clint Black’s “Iraq and I Roll” for a particularly cringe-inducing example.)
“If they’re so ******* patriotic,” Sidles says, “last I heard the Army and Marines are hiring.”
I could write a very long column indeed about other motivations, but I don’t have the space. Still, I can’t resist relating one theory. Air Force vet Andrew Bacevich thinks this may be partly the result of the “everyone wins!” Baby Boomer parenting culture, in which the star player on your kid’s soccer team is deemed equal to the bumbler or complainer.
“The notion of heroism has become so commonplace that in some respects it’s become equivalent of the whole way kids’ sports have been transformed. Everybody gets a trophy, everybody is a winner,” he says. “That idea that to participate, mere participation, as the hallmark of achievement, has become commonplace.”
We can all try to outdo each other with meaningless demonstrations of support for the troops, but trust me, they aren’t fooled.
Gomez said his editors at the New York Times removed the following idea from his post, fretting that it would offend (civilian) readers: The phony praise is “a cop out meant to replace hard time (in the military). When you say military people are all heroes, it’s almost like, ‘Since we have called you a hero, the best thing we can possibly do, we don’t really owe you anything else. I’ve called you a hero, what else do you want?'”
OK. But it’s just a harmless bit of rhetoric, isn’t it?
I’ll let my interviewees take up that question in my next column.