Monday, November 16, 2015

227.5 - Heroics: Soldiers are not heroes

Heroics: Soldiers are not heroes

This show is on the week following Veterans Day, so this seemed the right time to include my annual Veterans Day commentary. I have done this either on my blog or here - or both - for this will make it seven years now.

I gave up sometime back on worrying about how it will be taken. When I first did it, I tried various ways to start, wanting to make sure that I said what I meant and only what I meant. But I came 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 and a call for peace but a celebration of anyone who's ever been in the military.

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.

The attitude still exists: Do a Google search on "soldiers our heroes" and you get something over 16 million hits. 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 - which is exactly what has happened: Instead of being, again, a commemoration of the dead and of peace, November 11 has become a celebration of all things military, rife with paeans to the "nobility of sacrifice" and to veterans as the "true patriots" - apparently the only true patriots, as they are given due unavailable to everyone else.

This is not only unfortunate, 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.

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 at their best state 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?

And while it's true that the idea of tuition-free, taxpayer-supported public education up through four years of college for anyone who can show themselves capable of meeting the educational standards involved has entered the political arena, that doesn't change the fundamental argument here: Propose an educational plan for a "first-class future" for veterans, and everybody will cheer wildly while proposing it for others doesn't even chart - and proposing it for everyone gets mostly moans about "Gee, how can we afford it?"

So 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.

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 $80 billion a year and the arguments for them often quite misleading: Many such benefits were instituted in the wake of World War II. 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 benefits is morally reprehensible.

But, yes, veterans benefits are too generous to the extent that they become a reward for being in the military - such as, for example, veterans' preferences in civil service jobs are - and especially when they single out veterans for opportunities such as for higher education and housing 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. If you're legally entitled to it, take it. 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.

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. The emotional embrace of soldiers as "our heroes," as some sort of disembodied ideal, has implications beyond the immediate ones, beyond questions of public support and access to programs and beyond as well the immediate experience of our recent and present wars. Because 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 the ears of many listeners.

In our pursuit of "support the troops," we have fallen prey to that same attitude, one that regards the statements of war veterans as more valuable, more telling, than those of non-veterans. That is, we embrace the militarist, the Pentagon, view of world affairs simply because it is the Pentagon.

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 put-down, 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.

Chelsea Manning
But the real danger is that as the attitude persists, it distorts our way of thinking, drops a magnet on our moral compass. I still recall with pain how during the Iraq war we dismissed, ignored, downplayed, the atrocities committed by US forces; how we refused to blame those who shot civilians even when the attacks were clearly acts of vengeance; how we downplayed the routine cruelties and closed our eyes to the evidence of war crimes; how we made excuses for those who shot the wounded or tortured prisoners; how 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 and still seem incapable of recognizing it, the point. We as a culture, as a society, as a people, wanted to give a blanket pass to all soldiers, to remove from them 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. Instead, we put our judgment not on those who commit the crimes but on those who tell us about them - such as Chelsea Manning, now spending 35 years in prison for having done precisely that.

Soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can become 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.

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