Saturday, June 02, 2012

Assessing the statement, "Soldiers are heroes"

On Thursday, Ed Bratyon wrote about some commentary about how Americans perceive soldiers, and how one commentator felt uncomfortable with the prevailing narrative:
I think it’s interesting because I think it is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the words “heroes.” Why do I feel so [uncomfortable] about the word “hero”? I feel comfortable — uncomfortable — about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism: hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers and things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.
Brayton's commentary was a well-reasoned (IMO), considering the almost immediate backlash that the above commentary received:
We throw around the term “hero” far too casually, especially in times of war. It’s part of the myth-making and emotional blackmail that always accompanies war. There are soldiers who certainly do act heroically, and Hayes named some of those situations. We give those who engage in such heroics special recognition with things like Silver Stars and Congressional Medals of Honor. And the mere fact that we recognize genuine heroism is a reason to stop throwing the term around so casually and applying it to anyone who joins the military or goes to war.

That doesn’t mean those who don’t show such heroism are bad or cowardly, nor does it denigrate those who join the military in general. And those who claim it does are engaged in exactly the kind of ostentatious, hyper-emotional, faux-patriotic ritual gesturing that rational people should find discomforting. It triggers emotional responses that shut off rationality for most people when considering, from the safety of their own living rooms of course, whether to send other people to kill and die.
Brayton continues further, but I'd also like a crack at this question.

I'd first reframe the question as, "Are all soldiers heroes?" or, "Are soldiers necessarily heroes?" If, you state that "Soldiers are heroes," then that means that Lee Harvey Oswald was a hero, too. If you state that Oswald was not a hero, then it means that you have falsified the statement, "Soldiers are heroes."

However, perhaps you mean that "active duty soldiers are heroes." If, so then do you mean to say that Nidal Malik Hassan was a hero? Would you say that Robert Bales was a hero? What about the Syrian army soldiers who recently massacred women and children and then shelled the town of Houla? I'd bet that many people - even Americans who support the military - would find reasons to disqualify even Major Hassan and Sergeant Bales from the title of "hero," justifying the disqualification with the argument, "even heroes can fall." However, this - and other rationalizations - effectively boils down to an argument of, "there are exceptions." This must therefore mean, "there are criteria for being a hero," which disqualifies the blanket statement, "Soldiers are heroes."

In order to be a hero, one has to do heroic things. Is it easier to accomplish heroic things while being a soldier? I'd say, "yes," since we confer the idea of heroism to those actions that soldiers are expected to carry out. Ideas like self-sacrifice, of unit cohesion, and of courage in the face of danger. National pride and nationalism isn't enough; you can be an ultra-nationalist, but that - in itself - doesn't make you a hero. Action alone is not enough, either; running a marathon does not make you a hero. There needs to be a cause (often for a cause, like nationalism) married to actions of heroic proportions in order to be deserving of attention. However, that still isn't enough for one to be called a hero.

If we consider self-sacrifice to be an action of heroic proportions, then kamikaze pilots ought to be given the same level of heroic recognition as those members of the British light brigade that charged the Russian cannons or of the actions of posthumous Medal of Honor recipients. However, Americans don't consider Japanese kamikaze pilots to be heroic, and (arguably) Americans don't feel as much emotional attachment to the charge of the light brigade (even if they read the poem) as they do for the US recipients of the Medal of Honor. Why? After all, they all committed acts of self-sacrifice and no doubt showed courage in the face of danger (and certain death).

Recognizing that Americans do not consider WW2 Japanese kamikaze pilots as heroes means that the actions of heroic proportions must be done in service of the "greater good" of the group to which people associate themselves. Most often, this recognition is based on national identity. It wouldn't be too difficult to imagine that - if Japan had won the war - the self-sacrificial actions of the kamikaze pilots would be seen as heroic, while the actions of the American marines would not. This recognition seems to instill a level of disturbance and fear into the hearts of many people when they consider the possibilities of what it means to be in a position of taking an heroic action. Our enemies - being human - are just as capable of producing those heroic actions as our allies, but labeling those actions, "heroic" is something that we cannot do.

However, while Americans might consider the actions of the Light Brigade to be as heroic as Custer's Charge, what about the actions of the British redcoats against the (admittedly treasonous) actions of the American revolutionaries? Could any military actions taken by the British between 1776 and 1781 be seen as heroic? What about the British actions in the War of 1812? What makes those not-heroic actions any different than the actions of the British army in 1854 in Crimea? Why the change? What made the British army able to be heroic in 1854 in ways that they weren't only 49 years? The answer is, obviously, that in 1854, the British were no longer the enemy of the US, and there was enough time since the last US-British military confrontation. Interestingly, how would the US perception of the actions of the British military in the Falklands War change if the US and the British became enemies tomorrow? The British actions vis-a-vis the US in WW2? In the Iraq Wars? In Afghanistan? The Cold War?

It's troubling that heroism is dependent upon our perception of the context of the actions. If the context is "good", then the actions are "heroic." If the context is "bad", then the actions aren't "heroic"... but something else: villainous or even cowardly. It serves a dual purpose of elevating those people (and actions) that we consider "good" - that are in "our corner" - while sinking our regard of those people (and actions) that we consider "bad" - and that act against us.

Therefore, there are many reasons why I don't agree with the blanket statement, "Soldiers are heroes," because it leaves to implicitness too many factors that too easily beat down the actual logic and validity of the statement. However, I hate it more because of the implicitness of the assumptions, because it allows people to effectively say, "well I'll know the exception when I see it", which is an attempt to cocoon themselves from later critical thinking. Furthermore, such implicitness of reasoning allows it to become too easily ensnared and equated to dominant themes of unthinking, uncritical nationalism.

Soldiers can become heroes. Soldiers can serve without becoming heroes. You can be a champion cyclist without ever being a hero. However, Lance Armstrong - although a champion cyclist - only increased the perception of his heroism when his wins were re-framed as him coming back after beating his cancer, and only continued to grow, thanks to his charitable work to raise money to fight cancer. For heroism, context matters, that is the crux of it. Like Brayton concludes:
The best thing we can do is prevent the creation of more veterans who carry the deep wounds of war, both physical and psychological, with them every day. That’s why reason and skepticism, two things in short supply in this country (and perhaps this species), are so vitally important.

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