The day before the 2014 Veteran’s Day, Salon published an articled titled You don’t protect my freedom: Our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy.
Below are some key takeaways:
Put a man in uniform, preferably a white man, give him a gun, and Americans will worship him. It is a particularly childish trait, of a childlike culture, that insists on anointing all active military members and police officers as “heroes.” The rhetorical sloppiness and intellectual shallowness of affixing such a reverent label to everyone in the military or law enforcement betrays a frightening cultural streak of nationalism, chauvinism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism, but it also makes honest and serious conversations necessary for the maintenance and enhancement of a fragile democracy nearly impossible.
It is undeniable that there are police officers who heroically uphold their motto and mission to “serve and protect,” just as it is indisputable that there are members of the military who valiantly sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Reviewing the research proving cruelty and mendacity within law enforcement and the military, and reading the stories of trauma and tragedy caused by officers and soldiers, does not mean that no cop or troop qualifies as a hero, but it certainly means that many of them are not heroes.
One of the reasons that the American public so eagerly and excitedly complies with the cultural code of lionizing every soldier and cop is because of the physical risk-taking and bravery many of them display on the foreign battleground and the American street. Physical strength and courage is only useful and laudable when invested in a cause that is noble and moral. The causes of American foreign policy, especially at the present, rarely qualify for either compliment. The “troops are heroes” boosters of American life typically toss out clichés to defend their generalization – “They defend our freedom,” “They fight so we don’t have to.”
No American freedom is currently at stake in Afghanistan. It is impossible to imagine an argument to the contrary, just as the war in Iraq was clearly fought for the interests of empire, the profits of defense contractors, and the edification of neoconservative theorists. It had nothing to do with the safety or freedom of the American people. The last time the U.S. military deployed to fight for the protection of American life was in World War II – an inconvenient fact that reduces clichés about “thanking a soldier” for free speech to rubble. If a soldier deserves gratitude, so does the litigator who argued key First Amendment cases in court, the legislators who voted for the protection of free speech, and thousands of external agitators who rallied for more speech rights, less censorship and broader access to media.
Wars that are not heroic have no real heroes, except for the people who oppose those wars. Far from being the heroes of recent wars, American troops are among their victims. No rational person can blame the soldier, the Marine, the airman, or the Navy man for the stupid and destructive foreign policy of the U.S. government, but calling them “heroes,” and settling for nothing less, makes honest and critical conversations about American foreign policy less likely to happen. If all troops are heroes, it doesn’t make much sense to call their mission unnecessary and unjust.
An understandable reason for calling all troops heroes, even on the left, is to honor the sacrifice they make after they die or endure a life-altering injury in one of America’s foolish acts of aggression. A more helpful and productive act of citizenship, and sign of solidarity with the military, is the enlistment in an antiwar movement that would prevent the government from using its volunteer Army as a plaything for the financial advancement and political cover of the state-corporate nexus and the military-industrial complex of Dwight Eishenhower’s nightmares.
Given the dubious and dangerous nature of American foreign policy, and the neglect and abuse veterans often suffer when returning home wounded or traumatized, Americans, especially those who oppose war, should do everything they can to discourage young, poor and working-class men and women from joining the military. Part of the campaign against enlistment requires removing the glory of the “hero” label from those who do enlist. Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of divinity studies at Duke whom Time called “America’s best theologian,” has suggested that, given the radical pacifism of Jesus Christ, American churches should do all they can to discourage its young congregants from joining the military. Haurwas’ brand of intellectual courage is necessary, even among non-Christians, to combat the hysterical sycophancy toward the military in a culture where even saluting a Marine, while holding a coffee cup, is tantamount to terrorism.
A social worker who commits to the care and advocacy of adults with developmental disabilities – helping them find employment, group home placement and medical care, and just treating them with love and kindness – is a hero. A hospice worker in a poor neighborhood, providing precious comfort and consolation to someone dying on the ugly edges of American healthcare, is a hero. An inner-city teacher, working hard to give essential education and meaningful affirmation to children living in neighborhoods where bullets fly and families fall apart, is a hero.
Not all teachers, hospice workers or social workers are heroes, but emphasizing the heroism of those who do commit to their clients, patients and students with love and service would cause a shift of America’s fundamental values. It would place the spotlight on tender and selfless acts of solidarity and empathy for the poor. Calling all cops heroes too often leads to pathetic deference to authority, even when the results are fatal, and insisting all members of the military are heroes too often reinforces the American values of militarism and exceptionalism.
The assignment of heroism, exactly like the literary construct, might have more to do with the assignment of villainy than the actual honoring of “heroes.” Every hero needs a villain. If the only heroes are armed men fighting the country’s wars on drugs and wars in the Middle East, America’s only villains are criminals and terrorists. If servants of the poor, sick and oppressed are the heroes, then the villains are those who oppress, profit from inequality and poverty, and neglect the sick. If that is the real battle of heroism versus villainy, everyone is implicated, and everyone has a far greater role than repeating slogans, tying ribbons and placing stickers on bumpers.