I am one of those misguided, clueless people who, when writing about our military men and women slugging it out in Iraq and Afghanistan, engaged in combat, just trying not to get killed or maimed by an IED or just driving a truck with supplies across the desert, instinctively and invariably refers to them as “heroes.”
However, a piece appearing today in the Los Angeles Times tells me how utterly wrong and naïve I am.
The writer, William J. Astore, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lists all the technical, logical and semantics reasons why our fighting men and women should not be collectively called heroes.
I take strong exception to the thesis. Please bear with me while I explain why.
When I refer to our fighting men and women as “heroes,” I do that out of general, across-the-board respect and admiration for them, and out of deep gratitude for the sacrifices they make for our country.
I know darn well that not everyone of them fits your definition of “hero”: “someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place,” albeit so many of our military come very close to doing so.
But why nitpick, why be stingy when it comes to praising our military?
Those few whom you would call “real heroes” will still be singled out, recognized, honored and “celebrated” with the appropriate military awards and decorations designed and reserved for just such acts of valor and heroism. I do not believe the “real heroes” would begrudge their brothers and sisters in arms from being referred to as “heroes.”
I guess I could refer to our fighting men and women as “our brave ones,” or “our dedicated ones,” but the nitpickers would then claim that not all our military are brave or dedicated.
However, when we are told that we should refrain from calling our troops heroes because such a creation of a “league” or “legion” of heroes ensures that “that the brutalizing aspects and effects of war will be played down,” or that “we blind ourselves to evidence of destructive, sometimes atrocious, behavior,” I believe that we are beyond nitpicking.
The writer uses as an example:
[Heroes] don’t commit atrocities. They don’t, for instance, dig bullets out of pregnant women’s bodies in an attempt to cover up deadly mistakes, as the Times of London recently reported may have happened in Gardez, Afghanistan. Such atrocities, so common to war’s brutal chaos, produce cognitive dissonance in the minds of many Americans, who simply can’t imagine their “heroes” killing innocents and then covering up the evidence. How much easier it is to see the acts of violence of our troops as necessary, admirable, even noble.
Colonel, forgive me, but I consider this an affront to the intelligence and, worse, to the moral compass of the American people.
Yes, there are those very few bad actors in the military who would rape, murder, commit atrocities. But, believe me, calling the other 99.9 percent of our troops heroes will definitely not produce “cognitive dissonance” in the minds of Americans, nor will it result in Americans calling acts of violence of our troops “necessary, admirable, even noble.”
However, what I find even more troubling is citing the “overuse” by certain Germans of “Helden” (heroes) during World War I to “ennoble German militarism,” as being germane to the discussion of our American heroes. I know that Hitler and his ilk also called the Nazi troops during World War II, including those involved in the Holocaust, “Helden.”
So what? What does that have to do with American troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, unless one would want to compare those wars, as much as one may disagree with them, to the Nazi atrocities?
I totally oppose the Iraq war. I have written frequently and strongly about my opposition.
And yet, I still call those men and women fighting that war heroes–and I will continue to do so.
Astore is correct that “[I]n rejecting blanket ‘hero’ labels today, we would not be insulting our troops.” That is because our troops “collectively” cannot be insulted. Just as calling them heroes does not cheapen true acts of heroism, nor does it justify, humanize or glorify war. Governments and politicians who take us into war might justify and glorify wars, not the troops who fight and die in them.
Let me conclude with a hypothetical question. Given the choice of collectively calling our troops heroes, because of those few “real heroes,” and collectively calling our troops murderers and criminal because of those few bad apples, which one would you go for?
Believe me that some have actually opted for the latter choice.
Forgive me if I continue to opt for the first choice, at the risk of erring—technically, logically and semantically—on the side of our troops.
Col. Astore, thank you for your service. In my eyes, you are a hero, too.
YES, they are all heroes:
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a writer.