Who is a hero? In today’s America, it is someone who chooses a military career, puts on a uniform, and prepares for war. Placing soldiers and veterans on this kind of pedestal is a relatively new phenomenon. Past generations of Americans saw soldiers as ordinary human beings. They were like the rest of us: big and small, smart and dumb, capable of good and bad choices. Now we pretend they are demi-gods.
One reason Americans have come to view soldiers as our only protectors is that we have accepted the idea that our country is under permanent threat from fanatics who want to kill us and destroy our way of life. Yet we also felt this way at the height of the Cold War, and we did not fetishize soldiers then the way we do now. Perhaps that was because few were coming home in body bags.
Many were killed during the Vietnam War, though, and that did not move us to worship everyone who put on a uniform. We recognized, as all societies do, that some soldiers are true heroes — but because of their individual acts, not simply because they chose military careers. We are mature enough to know that a banker’s suit does not always reflect honesty and that a cleric’s robe may not cloak a pure soul. Yet we readily believe that the olive-green uniform automatically raises its wearer to saintly status.
At sports stadiums, many games now include a ceremony at which a uniformed “honor guard” marches in formation bearing ceremonial weapons. Then, during a break in the action, a soldier appears on the field or court, waving to the adoring crowd as an announcer recounts service in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the “war on terror.” These rituals feed the fantasy that military service turns one into a better, more selfless human being.
To admire soldiers who have performed acts of bravery is fully justified. Not all combat heroes, however, are eager to stand before thousands of people and accept the honor they deserve. If we truly want to promote a positive form of hero-worship, we should not only abandon the idea that uniforms automatically transform ordinary people into giants. We should also recognize the other giants who protect and defend our society.
Our communities are full of everyday heroes. These are the nurses, schoolteachers, addiction counsellors, community organizers, social workers, coaches, probation officers, and other civilians who struggle to keep Americans from slipping toward despair, sickness, or violence. They guide people away from hopelessness and toward productive lives. Society collapses without these people. Yet we rarely give them the chance to acknowledge the gratitude of cheering multitudes. That honor is reserved for those whose individual merit may be limited to their choice — perhaps motivated by a variety of factors — to put on a uniform.
When soldiers were part of society, people recognized them as ordinary human beings. Now, with the emergence of the all-volunteer army, society has transferred the burden of war to a small, self-contained caste cut off from the American mainstream. This distance allows civilians to develop extravagant fantasies about soldiers that feed the militarist impulse. If we believe our soldiers are superheroes, it makes sense to send them to faraway battlefields to solve our perceived problems in the world. That is why, in this era of seemingly endless war, politicians, the defense industry, and even big-time sports compete with each other to promote hero-worship of soldiers and veterans.
This serves the cynical interests of those who, for political or business reasons, want to encourage American involvement in foreign wars. Even worse, it distracts attention away from the scandalous way we treat our veterans. Cheering for them in public and saluting them in cliché-ridden speeches is a way to disguise the fact that our society callously discards many of them. Shocking rates of unemployment, mental illness, homelessness, addiction, and suicide among our veterans constitute a national disgrace. It is far easier, however, to spend a few seconds applauding a smiling soldier than to contemplate a troubled veteran left behind by an uncaring country.
The soldier acknowledging cheers at a ball game is a fantasy figure we can easily admire. Veterans in need are more disturbing, so we keep them invisible. If we truly considered our uniformed fighters heroic, we would show them real gratitude rather than the phony kind that gives us a shiver of momentary pride but does them little good.
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Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.