Friday, June 17, 2011

On Heroes and Heroism

This post from the "At War" Blog of The New York Times has revived some thoughts that I've been having over the last decade. These two paragraphs get at the gist of the argument:

I understand the sentiment, and I trust that there are those who truly believe that all service members are heroes, simply for signing up. But I can’t help think that for some, “hero” is a throw-away word, designed to demonstrate a “support the troops” position or guarantee applause at an event.

I don’t feel comfortable being called a hero. In fact, my brow furrows and my mind sharpens when I hear it. Words matter, and “hero” is so loaded and used so frequently that it stands to lose its meaning altogether. Maybe this is just New York cynicism, but I know I’m not the only veteran who feels skeptical when he or she is placed in the hero bin along with every other service member from the past 10 years. I admire the fact that men and women with whom I served chose a dangerous profession for their country – often making the decision after 9/11. But, these are soldiers. Soldiers are human beings. There are good ones and bad ones. A few do amazing, heroic things. The rest do their jobs – incredible, unique jobs – but jobs, nonetheless. Some perform happily, others grudgingly. And I argue that most feel embarrassed when lauded as heroes.

I have also felt the same about the profligate use of the word "hero" to describe every single police officer or firefighter after 9/11. Of course to say as juch seems like an implicit criticism -- to say that they are not all heroes is to say something dark and nefarious rather than to make a statement of interpretation. Is eery single person who has served in the military a hero? If so, don't we need another word to describe the valour above and beyond simple service that so many engage in? And doesn't that then devalue the word to begin with?

This "hero dilemma" strikes me as a function of two issues. The first stems from Vietnam, when the treatment of many vets ranged from indifference to hostility, neither of which was justifiable and both of which we as a society have studiously tried to avoid.

The second issue ties into cultural politics, however. For to question anything about the military, which includes not granting the highest possible form of praise at every turn, has become a reflection on one's patriotism. This leads to a knee-jerk politics about issues that ought to require more seriousness.

It is a good and sometimes great thing when men and women join the service. But it is also a good and sometimes great thing when men and women go to universities, or enter the work force, or engage in some other form of service. It seems to me to cheapen a word we ought to take at great value to toss it around for everyone who fits into a certain category. I simply do not believe that every cop in New York is a hero. It ought to be not only ok, but perfectly unobjectionable, to say as much.

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