This Veteran’s week, there is growing irritation on the part of some to the modern American custom of calling all veterans heroes. One recent example is David Masciotra’s Salon piece “You Don’t Protect My Freedom: Our Childish Insistence on Calling Soldiers Heroes.”
I get it. It is healthy and necessary to question the wild stadium applause and automatic cheering of all things military. I am very sympathetic to his point. The term heroes has been devalued, just as Masciotra says (though even he falls into the “easy hero” trap by suggesting that teachers, hospice workers and social workers deserve the designation more than soldiers). He decries the sexual harassment problems in the military that arose after the decision to put women in combat. Then he reminds us that not every U.S. war is just. That is a truth Catholics are keenly aware of (though Masciotra is certainly wrong about the justice of the U.S. war in Afghanistan against the Taliban).
But I think Masciotra might misunderstand why it is Americans are so quick to call soldiers heroes. Some thoughts …
1. We call them heroes because they do what we would not or could not.
Recently students, friends and I watched The Hurt Locker together. Seeing the soldiers living under the constant threat of roadside IEDs and insurgents, one comment kept being repeated: “I’m glad I’m not in Iraq,” and “I wouldn’t go to Iraq for any amount of money.”
It is true: Many — most — of us wouldn’t do what they do. But they do.
“No one has greater love than this,” said Jesus, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
We recognize that veterans have shown a willingness to sacrifice themselves that is admirable in and of itself, even as the centurion’s faith in the Gospel was admirable, even though he was a leader in the occupying force that would crucify Christ.
2. We call them heroes because they have committed themselves to virtues we lack.
Of course, Jesus praises the centurion not for offering his life but for his faith. His faith derives from his military virtues.
“For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me,” he tells Jesus. “And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes.” These virtues dispose his mind to accept Christ. In the 21st century, the military has preserved the virtues of discipline, hard work and loyalty that are the antithesis of the carelessness, acedia and infidelity that have weakened the national fabric.
There is something thrilling in watching the U.S. Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon and the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier because we recognize in their precision a whole way of life. I know a priest who uses both to teach his altar servers the care they should have around the altar. What better institution than the military can he use to show the self-control and reverence kids need to see?
3. We call them heroes because they rise above partisan pettiness.
Today’s public discourse is toxic not because it is partisan — humanity has always been thus — but because we have become so petty about it.
It is one thing to disagree over ideas. It is quite another to reject the persons who disagree.
For all our talk of tolerance, Americans have become very thin-skinned. Friends, families and coworkers are too often torn apart over differences that we should know not to take personally. It need not be so — and in a healthy democracy it should not be so.
The men and women who are willing to go to serve regardless of who is in power live out in their lives the nonpartisan spirit many of us only pretend to share.
… in the end, I agree. Let’s not glorify war.
It is right to question military decisions. We should not mindlessly rush into violent answers to situations where often the last thing needed is more killing.
But as for the men and women who serve our country, I think it is right to stand and applaud them, without reservation.
When someone is willing to risk their life, their limbs and their sanity for me; when someone has conquered their fears and their selfishness to the degree one must in the military, it is right to call them heroes. We have no better term to acknowledge our debt.
Reprinted with permission from the Gregorian Institute at Benedictine College.