Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Heroics

Updated Cross-posted to the Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus.

I've tried various ways to start this, wanting to make sure that I say what I mean and only what I mean. But I've come to realize that there is no way that will not be misunderstood, either accidentally or deliberately, by some. So I gave up trying to do anything other than say it outright.

I am deeply disturbed by the increasing tendency among "progressives" to adulate all things military, and particularly disturbed by the practice of referring to soldiers routinely as "our heroes" or some similar formulation. Let me be clear here: Soldiers are not "heroes." A "hero" is by definition someone who is in some way extraordinary, remarkable, worthy of emulation. It is at best a risky business to define someone as "extraordinary" simply by virtue of wearing a uniform and in fact it is potentially dangerous as it makes it too easy to slip into the militaristic attitude that what soldiers do goes beyond "necessary evil" or just necessary, beyond even honorable, to admirable, to something to celebrate, an attitude that makes it all to easy to promote additional enlistments, additional weapons, and even additional wars.

The root of this, I'm convinced, is that after years of the constant drumbeat from the right that those on the left are "soft" on "national security," that we aren't "tough enough," not ready enough to "do what's necessary" to "protect our way of life," we increasingly have decided to, if you will, fight on those terms; that is, we have absorbed the idea that we have to prove ourselves on "security" issues by proving that we're "tough."

Our means of doing this, a means that first appeared during the Gulf War, was to declare loudly that "We support the troops!" That was our way into the national security debate, a way to (supposedly) oppose the war while, we declared, supporting the men and women sent to fight it. We would prove that we were as committed to the military and national security as the right, just, well, in a sorta different way.

One less important but still revealing example came on Monday during Jon Stewart's interview with Senator Jim Webb. Most of that interview was a discussion about Webb's bill to expand veteran educational benefits, under which, in return for three years in the military, soldiers would receive four years' tuition at their best state college plus the cost of books, plus a monthly stipend. At one point, when Webb said that the least we can do for our soldiers is give them the chance for "a first-class future," the audience burst into loud applause.

And I thought then, as I have before when this bill was being discussed, would there be any chance, any chance at all, of that same sort of reaction if the same proposal was made on behalf of any other group? What if someone proposed paying for four years of college for, say, firefighters? Or cops? How about volunteers in VISTA (now AmeriCorps VISTA)? Or the Peace Corps? The latter two provide some educational benefits for those who put in their time, but nothing vaguely approaching four fully-paid years of college.

What about publicly-funded continuing education for doctors and nurses? Such continuing education is not only a good idea for health care professionals, it's often a requirement for maintaining their licenses to practice. And certainly having doctors and nurses who are up to date on the best knowledge and practice is beneficial to the public. So why not have public financing of that continuing education?

When it comes down to it, why not have public education, tuition-free, taxpayer-supported public education, right up through four years of college for anyone who can show themselves capable of meeting the educational standards for a college degree? Can you seriously imagine a studio audience bursting into spontaneous, enthusiastic applause for someone seriously proposing such an idea?

Why only soldiers? What does it say about us that the idea of paying soldiers' way through college gets ovations while the idea of anyone else getting the same benefit gets at best quizzical stares if not overt sneering rejections? It says that we regard the work of soldiering as inherently more important, inherently more deserving of praise and reward, than the work of others - and the lives of soldiers as inherently more valuable than the lives of the rest of us. That is the attitude we are buying into.

But if it was only things like veterans' benefits, it might not seem particularly important. I say that despite the fact that the amount of money involved in such benefits is not trivial and Webb's argument that his bill just provides the equivalent of educational benefits given to veterans of World War II is quite misleading: For one thing, many of those soldiers had been drafted "for the duration," so it wasn't automatically a matter of three years and out. For another, the avowed purpose of those World War II benefits was to make up for what those soldiers had lost in regard to their civilian careers as compared to those who had not been in the military. That is, they were to insure that soldiers did not wind up being penalized for having been soldiers. They were not intended to give soldiers a leg up over others (or "a first class future") and they most definitely were not presented as being a reward for military service. But that's what they have become over the years and that's how Webb's bill treats them.

I also want to make abundantly clear in case it's not or is willfully ignored that the benefits being questioned here do not include such as medical care, rehabilitation, and counseling for vets wounded either physically or psychologically. But, yes, veterans benefits are too generous to the extent that they become a reward for being in the military. So I am against Webb's bill and I don't give a damn whether it will affect retention rates or not. I am opposed to it so long as soldiers get singled out for an opportunity for higher education that is becoming increasingly financially impossible for many people.

Even so, again, if that's all there was to it, it might not seem like a great big huge deal. But that's not all there is to it, not when we are trying to lay claim to national security chops by out troop-supporting the right, insisting that we're the ones who really support the troops, we're the ones who really support their brave courageous efforts and we prove it by undaunted adulation, blandly treating, with no hint of hesitation, the phrase "have a lot of courage" and the word "soldier" as synonymous.

So we were the ones who loudly decried the lack of body armor and the lack of reinforced plating on military vehicles, accusing the right of "not supporting the troops" as much as we do because of that failure. But as Mark Twain pointed out in "The War Prayer,"
[i]f you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.
In war, in combat, as long as the soldiers are there, there is an unavoidable trade-off: The more you wish for them to remain safe, the more you are wishing for them to kill others. That is what safety in combat means. The more you wish for them to return safely, the more you are wishing for Iraqis not to. The more you wish life for them, the more you are wishing death for others. The more you wish that American mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, don't suffer the loss of a family member, the more you are wishing that Iraqi mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, do.

So when we express "support for the troops" by demanding we "give them the equipment to do the job" and "then come home safely" rather than simply and solely saying "get them the hell out," we are offering a tacit - and sometimes not so tacit - endorsement of the killing. For the sake of the blessing of safety and life for our soldiers, we are calling down the curse of risk and death on Iraqis. When we declare support in terms of equipment rather than withdrawal, that is what we are endorsing. In war, there is no other way.

Undoubtedly, there are those who are prepared to declare American lives are worth more than Iraqi lives. I am not among them.

The emotional embrace of "our heroes" as some sort of disembodied ideal has policy implications beyond the immediate ones. Within that embrace, and the effects can already be seen in various interviews and commentaries, it becomes easy to absorb, absorb so deeply that one is unaware of it, the idea that a veteran's take on the Iraq war - and by extension, all things military - is inherently more valuable than that of others not by virtue of knowledge or logic or informed comment but simply by virtue of being a veteran. We regarded it (correctly) as a scandal when media outlets used retired generals who were actually Pentagon-trained PR flacks as "experts" on military and foreign policy questions in the runup to the Iraq War - but an overlooked point is that the reason retired generals were so prominent in that number was that their status as military people gave them added credibility in the eyes of many viewers and listeners. In our pursuit of "support the troops," we have fallen prey to that same attitude, one that regards the statements of Iraq War veterans as more valuable, more telling, than those of non-veterans. It even has become fairly common to hear dismissive references to those who "never saw combat." At first, that was a legitimate argument, directed as it was against chickenhawks, those rightwingers who were eager for fights, ready for wars, provided they did not have to take part in them. But increasingly it has been used as an all-purpose putdown, even against those on the left who have criticized soldiers - as, I imagine, it would be directed against me (a non-veteran and a Vietnam-era draft resister) were my voice loud enough to attract the attention.

But the real danger is that as the attitude persists, it distorts our way of thinking, drops a magnet on our moral compass. In a bizarre mirror image of the fanatical right, we refuse to blame soldiers who commit atrocities, or, more exactly, we refuse to acknowledge them. We refuse to blame those who shoot civilians even when the attacks are clearly acts of vengeance; we downplay the war crimes and the routine cruelties; we make excuses for those who shoot the wounded or torture prisoners; even when official Pentagon reports casually mention how a US soldier summarily executed a wounded fighter and shot another wounded, unresisting fighter twice in the back, we pay little notice - and if we do, it's usually to brush off complaints with that all-purpose "you've never been in combat" defense. "These things happen in war," we say.

Yes, they do. And "our heroes" are doing them. Which is, even as the deniers seem incapable of recognizing it, the point. Just as the right tries to blame the individuals and exonerate the hierarchy, we want to blame the hierarchy and exonerate the individuals, to remove all their responsibility for their own actions. That is an idea we were supposed to have rejected nearly 60 years ago; apparently, we haven't.

Soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things - but the act of putting on a uniform and agreeing to put your conscience in a lockbox for the next so many years does not make your life more important than others, it does not make your opinions and insights more worthy of respect than others, it does not exempt you from moral judgment. It does not make you a hero.

And we should not fall prey to hero-worship.

Footnote: This post from last October touches on a similar theme. Oh, and by the way, STDD/GTHO.

Updated with the note that as of December 27, 2009, there are 95 comments on this post. However, I am going to a new comment system in just a couple of days and it's possible all those comments will be lost. If that happens, my sincere apologies to those who have offered serious commentary, both pro and con. The rest of you, :shrug:.

10 comments:

T.M.B said...

Damn true. More people ought to realise this rather than blindly declare that "soldiers are heroes!" and denounce anyone who says differently.

BangBangVIP said...

I'd rather support them and have them kill the people who have organized to kill us than to say 'hey, even though those Iraqi's came over and are destroying our land, and killing OUR innocent people, let's not kill them ya know? cuz that would just be mean and unfair. Those guys have family too'

Yeah, there are civilian heroes such as cops and firefighters, but the soldiers have earned the title as well because they have volunteered to go to the places that threaten our country and they defend over there and if necessary, they will defend us on our land. Cops and firefighters are just keeping the peace within our country from each other whjle soldiers are keeping away the outside threats.

Do you know what goes on in the 'war zone'? have you been there? Obviously not. So, instead of saying what happens there when all you REALLY know is what the media tells you, and how SOME soldiers have been court marshalled for killing Iraqi's, maybe you should write about something you actually know about.

Its fine if you think that way, its only your opinion, and here's mine; Your a douche bag. You don't want to support the men and women who defend the country you live in from outside threats, FINE. You can go ahead and be part of that lucky group of people who is despised by the ones who have family in the military, but when those terrorists drop a bomb on your house, you'll be praying that SOMEONE comes and helps you, and you know who's gonna show up as your hero? American Soldiers.

LarryE said...

Well, BangBang, thanks for commenting even though there's more insight in a typical fortune cookie.

Just what Iraqis who "came over here and are destroying our land" are you referring to?

And I'm sure cops and firefighters will be relieved to learn that they're merely "keeping the peace" and it's not like their jobs have any risks or are involved with "protecting" anything.

As for me and what I have or have not seen or experienced, all you know of me is what is in that post. Anything beyond that is your own self-serving fantasizing.

"Its fine if you think that way, its only your opinion, and here's mine:" Come back when you have some vague notion of what the hell you are talking about.

KyleA said...

^^enough said

bangbangvip you failed miserably

"Yeah, there are civilian heroes such as cops and firefighters, but the soldiers have earned the title as well because they have volunteered to go to the places that threaten our country and they defend over there and if necessary, they will defend us on our land."

This whole section is embarrassing; simply put, there can still be bad cops and bad soldiers. The part i find particularly bothersome is the line about soldiers earning the right to be a hero by volunteering. The majority of people I know who have entered into the military did so because they didn't know what they want to do after high school. Many enter the military for the great benefits you receive from the government for signing up, not because they want to defend our country or help establish a structured government over in Iraq. One of my closest friends often told me he was joining the navy simply because he fucked up too much in high school, couldn't pay to for college and he wanted to kill people. Now I'm sure it didn't sound so vicious in his mind, he had always been very into firearms, hunting and paintball. Though i believe what my friend did was best for his situation, I would not call him a hero. I know that he now spends most of his weekends trying to find tail around base and getting loaded up. This is not to say what he does or has been through was easy, but it was his decision and he is getting a lot out of it. Simply signing up or going through hardship does not make you a hero.

I am not trying to say all or even most people who enter the military have this mindset, but many people do many different things for many different reasons. I am also not saying hero's do not exist within the military because they certainly do. You simply cannot generalize everyone into the same category.

Cops disgust me, actually, most aren't there to help us anyways- more often they are merely there to arrest nonviolent marijuana dealers and fill up the enormous number of prisons this country has built. (The United States of America contains less than 5% of the global population yet has nearly a fourth of global prison population.)

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html

Clarkx100 said...

First off I support BangBang. Seeing that you're probably already looking between the lines of my post for something to generalize and take out of context to invalidate me, but whatever.

My interest is in Kyle's post. I know many military people. My grandfather fought in WWII. My older brother is in the Army reserve. Therefore I know that they're human. No human is perfect. Only one ever was and I don't really think we can hope to live up to that. If your friend wants to chase tail around on the weekends that's his business. But I don't see how that takes away from his accomplishments. I personally don't give a damn what someone's mindset is when they choose or do something, I simply care about what that action or choice results in. I also don't see what cops and filled prisons have to do with any of this. I would love to know where you get your statistics on how many cops are there to help us. Do you honestly believe that cops only arrest marijuana dealers to be assholes? Cops don't choose what laws to enforce and I don't care what your stance is on the legality of marijuana, the fact of the matter is that at the moment it is against the law. Therefore it is his JOB to arrest them. He doesn't personally make the choice. If he turned a blind eye to crimes on a whim then he would be the corrupt one. Violence is not why they're arrested, breaking the law by willingly distributing an illegal substance is. Once again, I don't give a fuck what your stance is on it, it's illegal.

Back on topic. Let me throw a hypothetical scenario at you. A guy wanders into a town and is bumped into by a another guy running. The guy has a short fuse and grabs him by the shirt and punches him. Just then a police officer turns the corner chasing after the guy that was punched for fleeing the scene of a murder. Does the man not deserve thanks for stopping him regardless of the reason he did it? Go ahead and analyze that into something like, soldiers are cruel, or whatever you wish, I know you're going to anyway, but the fact remains that even if you don't join the military for the sole purpose of establishing government they are still doing just that. People seem to forget that there is a powerful terrorist organization that wishes death on america. It's been 9 years so people seem to think oh it's over and you're being dramatic, etc etc. But, the only thing that kept them from doing any more was the strength of our military. Someone that set out for destruction would have tried something bigger had they had the ability to. Afterwards our military pursuit forced them into hiding where they remain to this very day. I'm not saying I agree entirely with the war or what's going on, but much like a cop doesn't choose what laws to enforce, a soldier does not choose his battles. Free will or not.

Blaming them and hating them and the praise they get just because they did not choose to drop their career, which by the way a dishonorable discharge can ruin your life, is entirely unfair and an extremely biased accusation. Intentions or not soldiers do work that has to be done. If not for that work we would not have the lives we have now. It's the most dangerous job you can take and they take it willingly, which like it or not, is courageous.

Also to the author for picking and choosing definitions to fit your purpose. Hero is defined as a man distinguished by exceptional courage and strength. Which is TRUE. It can also be defined as another word for champion which is someone who fights for a cause. Soldiers are heroes and even though I'm absolutely positive they don't agree with what you have to say, they, to this day, fight for your right to say it.

Varmit said...

I agree. To quote a forum post I made in a thread in response to this whole idea...

"I do not believe soldiers are hero's. They do not fight to give people the right to free speech. I believe this because (1) I was a soldier and (2) based on experience talking to other soldiers.

Addressing point two, I have one specific story in mind, besides years of talking to people about this stuff while I was in. When I went through Basic Military Training, in one briefing by a Technical Sergeant with around about 100 Airmen, the Tech asked us, by show of hands, how many of us had come into the military for various reasons. Education benefits, travel, studying in college while in service for just two years, exotic places, health insurance, alternative to jail, a desire to shoot people, thought it'd be fun like in the video games, outdoors training/tactical training, parents kicking you out with no other options, the steady income, extra income from being in the Guard or Reserves, getting a start in life in general, or combination's of the above. Around about 30 people to half the class raised their hand for each reason. As few as five did when he asked about killing people. Basically the entire class raised their hands for the "all of the above" option.

The final two reasons he gave, and he specifically noted later that he always did this on purpose, were, "How many of you came in because of heritage? Having family in the military?" Two people raised their hands. "How many came in to serve their country?" One person raised his hand...out of 100.

He explained that he always asked those two questions last because that was always the response he got; that next to no one actually came in for those last two reasons. Now, obviously I don't know if that is just this Tech's experience, the Air Force in general, or the whole military. All I know is that my own experience over the next several years following that had the same percentage. Actually, lower. I was struck by the response in that briefing, because I had always thought that most people had come in to serve the country. I thought I'd be in the minority that was doing it for financial gain and education, but I wasn't.

So I would ask coworkers and new personnel all the time why they had come in and why they were getting out. Their goals never had anything to do with serving the country, freedom, or anything. It had to do with them having met their own goals.

Then again, please note, this is all just my opinion based on my personal experiences, but I disagree wholeheartedly that anyone should make the claim that the military (overall) fights for freedom at all, much less specifically freedom of speech. They may exist to defend our ability to maintain our freedoms, but attacking others isn't how you maintain the freedoms at home."

Gregorovitz Miggs said...

Comrades! Check out my cool radical song on youtube.
Then I will stand you against the wall, and calmly machine gun all of you whining lefty turds!!


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6jXAlhGWz4

LarryE said...

Well, Miggs - or was that J. Fred Muggs - I supposed I'm not surprised that you openly admit to being - even take pride in being - a sociopathic mass murderer.

To the extent that you're joking, you're lame. To the extent that you're serious, you're sick.

But y'know, on a moment's reflection, considering that you fall back on that long-since hackneyed, all-purpose, super-lame attack word "turds," I figure that, yeah, I'll have to go with you being lame.

RabbleRowser said...

I've seen great soldiers treated with disdain and hate after Nam and I've seen ordinary soldiers treated as royalty since then. You know what - I like the royalty better. Anyone who serves our country, for whatever reason, is worthy of all our respect. So, a few folks get too much glory - so what? Better that than the alternative. You're a pretty bright person - maybe you could focus on what galvanizes our nation and not what tears it apart. Just a suggestion, though. Thanks, and God bless . . .

LarryE said...

Fellow member of the Rabble:

You're a pretty bright person, too, so I don't know why it's necessary for me to repeat this, but I said that soldiers can be heroes - the problem is when they are, in your own words, "treated as royalty" simply by virtue of being soldiers.

Truth is, I don't see how it "galvanizes our nation" to regard soldiers as inherently more valuable, more worthy of respect, more worthy of notice, than other citizens just because they are (or were) soldiers. It seems more likely to mislead us into further insane military adventures.

And on a more fundamental level, I don't think that unanimity of purpose or thought is desirable or even wise for an open society.

 
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