heroes

On my Facebook feed recently, someone posted a picture of a pilot, stationed in Afghanistan, who had died. The poster called him a hero and said that he had given his life defending his country. In the comments, others questioned both of those points, saying that if his plane crashed or malfunctioned that might be neither heroic nor a particularly good example of keeping Americans safe.

Putting aside the fact that such comments seem insensitive on the occasion of the man's death, they do point to a problem with the way that Americans talk about the military. Respect for those in uniform has become politicized, and so we have to talk about the men and women who serve as noble "types" rather than actual people who might be brave or cowardly, competent or incompetent, heroic or merely human. They might do some things well and others poorly. Since the vast majority of us will not serve in the military, these stereotypes can really distort our ideas of those who do serve. One of these distorted ideas is that putting on the uniform automatically makes someone a "hero."

In a great column for the Boston Globe today, Stephen Kinder makes argues this point more fully.

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…This serves the cynical interests of those who, for political or business reasons, want to encourage American involvement in foreign wars.

Keeping these points in mind, he argues, would help us not only recognize the heroic contributions of others in society, but also prompt us to treat veterans better when they return from service. I highly recommend the piece.