The week this show is on includes Veterans Day, so this is the time I'm going to include my annual Veterans Day commentary. I have done this either on my blog or here - or both - for this will make it six years.
I have pretty much given up on worrying about how it will be taken. I've tried various ways to start, wanting to make sure that I say what I mean and only what I mean. But I've come to accept that there is no way that will not be misunderstood, either accidentally or, by some, deliberately. So I gave up trying to do anything other than say it outright. I regard it as an at least useful if not necessary counterpoint to the annual hyped praise of all things veteran, which too easily slides over into praise of all things military.
The thing is, November 11 has become so well-known as Veterans' Day that not many people remember that it was originally called Armistice Day. It was intended to commemorate those who died in World War I by an observation of the end of the war, which ended, at least on the Western front, on "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month." But after World War II, the US changed its day to Veterans' Day and over time it's become not a commemoration of those who have died in war but a celebration of anyone who's ever been in the military. It has slid from a commemoration of the dead and of peace, of the end of a war, to a promotion of militarism, to the "nobility of sacrifice," and to the "true patriots" - apparently the only true patriots, as they are given due unavailable to the rest of us.
This actually originally arose, what originally prompted it the first time I did this, was that I was (and still 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. And I will note right here that this may be the last time for this particular now five-year-old commentary because I don't feel as isolated a voice as I was on this and there is some pushback against the attitude I'm critiquing.
But the attitude still exists: Do a Google search on "soldiers our heroes" and you get over 1.1 million hits. It exists more on the right than on the left, but it still exists among progressives and that's what I'm really addressing. So 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 too 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 back in 1990-91, 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.
A perhaps revealing example of that attitude came a couple of years ago during an interview with then-Senator and liberal hero of the month Jim Webb on "The Daily Show," the audience for which, both on-air and in-studio, has a well-known lefty tilt. 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 since, 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?
What it says is that we regard the work of soldiering as inherently more important, inherently more deserving of praise and reward, than the work of others, no matter what contributions they make or have made to society. And it means we regard the lives of soldiers as inherently more valuable than the lives of the rest of us. That is the attitude we progressives have been and are buying into by buying into the "our heroes" meme.
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, being something over $60 billion and the arguments for them often quite misleading: Many such benefits were instituted in the wake of World War II - personally, I think part of the reason was memories of the Bonus Army, which had been just 13 years earlier. The avowed purpose of those 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 we continue to treat them.
I also want to make abundantly clear in case it's not or is willfully ignored that what I'm questioning here is not the right of veterans to get any medical care, rehabilitation, and counseling they need as the result of being wounded either physically or psychologically and the military's practice of giving soldiers less-than-honorable discharges precisely to avoid providing them with benefit is a moral disgrace. But, yes, veterans benefits are too generous to the extent that they become a reward for being in the military - such as veterans' preferences in civil service jobs - and especially when they refer to singling out veterans for opportunities such as for higher education that are becoming increasingly financially impossible for most of the rest of us.
Put another way, I do not object to or resent any veteran taking advantage of any benefits to which they are legally entitled: They are there to be used. But that is born of the general principle that I would advocate for the right of anyone to get any help which they truly need regardless of their let's call it prior employment history.
Put yet another way, I am opposed to soldiers getting benefits simply for having been soldiers when those benefits are not equally available to others with equal need and equal opportunity for personal advancement.
But even so, even again, if that's all there was to it, it still might not seem like a great big huge deal. But that's not all there is to it, not when we progressives have been trying to lay claim to national security chops by out troop-supporting, out Pentagon-embracing, 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 look to prove it by undaunted adulation, by blandly treating, with no hint of hesitation, the phrase "have a lot of courage" and the word "soldier" as synonymous.
It was the Iraq War that really brought this out. We were the ones who loudly decried the lack of body armor for the troops 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 we wished for them to return safely, the more we wished for Iraqis not to. The more we wished life for them, the more we wished death for others. The more we wished that American mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, didn't suffer the loss of a family member, the more we wished that Iraqi mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, did. That's what war means.
But we refused and continue to refuse to see that. So when we expressed "support for the troops" in Iraq 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 offered 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 called down the curse of risk and death on Iraqis. When we declared support in terms of equipment rather than withdrawal, that is what we endorsed. In war, there is no other way.
Undoubtedly, there are those who were prepared to declare American lives inherently are worth more than Iraqi lives. Or Afghan lives. Or Pakistani lives. Or the lives of the people in the places where our drones strike. I was not and am not among them and I still like to think that I'm part of a movement that would say the same if it would only, to quote Twain again, "pause and think." But I suspect we have done neither.
The emotional embrace of soldiers as "our heroes," as some sort of disembodied ideal, has implications beyond the immediate ones, beyond as well the immediate experience of our recent and present wars. Within that embrace, it becomes easy to absorb, absorb so deeply that one is unaware of it, the idea that a veteran's take on military matters - and by extension, all of foreign policy - 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 several years ago when media outlets used retired generals who were actually Pentagon-trained PR flacks as "experts" on military and foreign policy questions - 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 w1ar 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, because it was directed against those derided as 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, during the Iraq War we refused to blame soldiers who committed atrocities, or, more exactly, we refused to acknowledge them. We refused to blame those who shot civilians even when the attacks were clearly acts of vengeance; we downplayed the war crimes and the routine cruelties; we made excuses for those who shot the wounded or tortured prisoners; even when an official Pentagon report casually mentioned how a US soldier summarily executed a wounded fighter and shot another wounded, unresisting fighter twice in the back, we paid little notice - and if we did, it was usually to brush off complaints with that all-purpose "you've never been in combat" defense. "These things happen in war," we said.
Yes, they do. And "our heroes" were doing them. Which was and is, even as the deniers seemed incapable of recognizing it, the point. Just as the right tried to blame the individuals and exonerate the hierarchy, we wanted 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 70 years ago now; 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 contributions more valuable than others, it does not make you more deserving of aid 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.