The Hero Business

Andy Warhol had it wrong when he idly lisped that, in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes – everyone, without exception, will have his or her fifteen minutes of fame. Maybe it was joke. The enthusiastic response to his paintings of all those soup cans, which even he must have known were nothing much, deserved a quip. It really is too easy to generate fame, but now what he said about fame is seen as a brilliant cultural insight, used to explain Kim Kardashian. Hollywood is filled with people famous for nothing in particular, and they somehow seem to grab more than their allotted fifteen minutes – and then they’re gone. This makes late lunches down on the Sunset Strip here a bit surreal. Is that pretty or handsome or totally wasted person sitting at the next table someone, or no one? How can one tell? What are the criteria that make a no one into someone? No one knows anymore. That may be what Andy Warhol was getting at.

But everyone doesn’t get to be famous. Hardly anyone does – there are too many people in the world and not enough time or fame to go around, in spite of whatever you decide to post to YouTube. Fame is impossible for most everyone. Warhol would have been on firmer ground had he said that, in the future, everyone will be a hero, because we call everyone a hero now. And that’s verifiable. Stay-at-home moms are the real heroes now, or single moms, or working mothers – or they all are, as are the ordinary guys who go to work every single day and do their job, as they’re the real American heroes, as we’ve been told. Or teachers are the American heroes – underpaid and overworked and doing their best for our kids, unless they’re useless whiners with big salaries and massive pensions, who do little work at all, or insignificant work in a world where those who “do” matter far more. Maybe the real heroes are politicians like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, who want to bust their unions and take away the pensions, and make sure those leaches don’t drain the rest of us good people dry – because we’re the real heroes, not them. It gets confusing.

Maybe the confusion started back on 9/11 with all that death and destruction. The New York Fire Department performed heroically, saving lives, and hundreds of those firemen died. They were heroes. The same with many of the police on that day – but no one now is sure about the mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani. He saved no one, but he did say the right things. Keeping people’s spirits up might be heroic, if you stretch the term a bit. Then he did the unforgivable. He ran for president as the “Hero of 9/11” – and he couldn’t win even one Republican primary. One does not use previous heroism, or something like it, to become rich or famous or powerful. It’s simply not done. Heroes are humble. Everyone knows that.

But it got stretched further. Anyone who died that day is now referred to as an American hero, even if they just went to work that day and were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’ve decided that helpless and passive victims are heroes too. And then many on the right decided they themselves were heroes for heroically pointing out that these victims were heroes too, and anyone who said they weren’t heroes was siding with the terrorists, and was just as evil as any terrorist. Somehow everyone became a hero, and the designation kept widening to the point that the word means little now. Everyone’s a hero – but then we all like to think that about ourselves. It staves off existential despair.

That’s unfortunate. We can’t all be heroes. The term “hero” had been used sparingly and carefully before this, and now it somehow morphed into an all-purpose term for anyone who walks around and doesn’t bump into walls all that much. Even some heroes are not heroes at all. An Army staff sergeant during the Vietnam War explained this odd situation – “I was told I did heroic things in Vietnam, but I have only a vague memory of them. I did many un-heroic things in Vietnam: mostly hiding and waiting for danger to pass me by.”

He’s still a hero, perhaps. All Veterans are. Anyone who joins our now all-volunteer Army, to serve the country, is, on the face of it, doing something heroic – even if they’re joining to play tuba in one of the military bands. They didn’t have to do that. On the other hand, those of us who have family in the military know that the military, like any large organization, has its share of total jerks – and some of them die. They choose to face that, and yes, some of them do bad things – torture and the occasional civilian massacre. We call them heroes anyway. It’s just what we do but this is still an odd business – the hero business – as it seems much of our political discourse now consists of arguing just who are the Real American Heroes these days. We’ve become a nation obsessed with the heroic, trying to find it everywhere.

This intensifies at this time of year. The armistice signed between the Allies and Germany, at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front in World War I, took effect on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, so November 11 is Armistice Day – which turned into Remembrance Day in the UK and Canada and Veterans Day here. Twenty million died and we remember the heroes, and now that covers the heroes from both World Wars, and here we now honor all veterans of all wars, and all who served, even when there was no war.

We expanded the concept, or diluted it. We also moved the actual holiday to the Monday closest to November 11, even if November 11 is still Veterans Day, for reasons of commerce and convenience. All national holidays now fall on a Monday, because a three-day weekend works out best for everyone. We can’t move the Fourth of July – it has a damned number in it – and Christmas is a bother – the government can’t do anything about the nation’s de facto state religion – but we detached Veteran’s Day from its origins.

We may have done more than that. We may have made it mean nothing much. It’s that heroes business. Four years ago, William J. Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, put it this way:

Certainly, military service (especially the life-and-death struggles of combat) can provide an occasion for the exercise of heroism, but simply joining the armed services does not make you a hero, nor does the act of serving in combat.

Still, ever since the events of 9/11, there’s been an almost religious veneration of U.S. service members as “Our American Heroes” (as a well-intentioned sign puts it at my local post office). But a snappy uniform – or even dented body armor – is not a magical shortcut to hero status.

A hero is someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place. Heroes, of course, come in all sizes, shapes, ages and colors, most of them looking nothing like John Wayne or John Rambo or GI Joe (or Jane)…

Whether in civilian life or in the military, heroes are rare – indeed, all too rare! Heck, that’s the reason we celebrate them. They’re the very best of us, which means they can’t be all of us.

We need to be careful about generalizing:

By making our military a league of heroes, we ensure that the brutalizing aspects and effects of war will be played down. In celebrating isolated heroic feats, we often forget that war is guaranteed to degrade humanity as well.

“War,” as writer and cultural historian Louis Menand noted, “is especially terrible, not because it destroys human beings, who can be destroyed in plenty of other ways, but because it turns human beings into destroyers.”

When we create a legion of heroes in our minds, we blind ourselves to evidence of destructive, sometimes atrocious, behavior. Heroes, after all, 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.

Ah, no one remembers Gardez, if they ever heard of the place, but that’s not the point:

In rejecting blanket “hero” labels today, we would not be insulting our troops. Quite the opposite: We’d be making common cause with them. Most of them already know the difference between real heroism and everyday military service. … Whatever nationality they may be, troops at the front know the score. Even as our media and our culture seek to elevate them into the pantheon of demigods, the men and women at the front are focused on doing their jobs and returning home with their bodies, their minds and their buddies intact.

So, next time you talk to our soldiers, Marines, sailors or airmen, do them (and your country) a small favor. Thank them for their service. Let them know you appreciate them. Just don’t call them heroes.

This year it was Benjamin Summers, a captain in the Army, speaking only for himself:

I have worn an Army uniform for the past eight years and deployed twice to Afghanistan. This doesn’t make me a hero.

Many veterans deserve high praise for their heroism, but others of us do not. Infantrymen who put their lives on the line for a mission, aircrews who flew into harm’s way to evacuate the wounded, servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice – these are some of the heroes I’ve been privileged to know. Applying the label “hero” to those of us who haven’t earned it diminishes the service and sacrifice of those who did. It also gets in the way of constructive debate and policymaking.

Over the past decade, a growing chasm between military and civil society has raised the pedestal upon which the United States places those who serve in its military. Too much hero-labeling reinforces a false dichotomy that’s commonly heard in our political discourse: You’re either for the troops or you’re against them. We badly need to find ways to bridge this civilian-military gap to cultivate a more nuanced appreciation of service and to produce better policy in Washington.

He doesn’t appreciate being used, and gives this instance:

Too often, policymakers frame discussion of whether to cut the military budget as being for or against the troops; the political battle over the military portion of the Sequester is an example of this black-or-white mind-set. But any bureaucracy – particularly one that doesn’t function with a profit-and-loss mentality – can innovate and gain efficiencies when it’s forced to do more with less. If we’re not searching for opportunities to fix, clean and trim our organizations, we’re not being good stewards of them. When we can’t have political discussions that dig beneath the blanket of “for or against the troops,” palatability wins over stewardship. And one of our nation’s most precious resources suffers the long-term consequences.

That’s one of his many examples, but the item that’s now getting a lot of buzz is from David Masciotra in Salon. He seems to think that our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy:

Put a man in uniform, preferably a white man, give him a gun, and Americans will worship him. It is a particularly childish trait, of a childlike culture, that insists on anointing all active military members and police officers as “heroes.” The rhetorical sloppiness and intellectual shallowness of affixing such a reverent label to everyone in the military or law enforcement betrays a frightening cultural streak of nationalism, chauvinism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism, but it also makes honest and serious conversations necessary for the maintenance and enhancement of a fragile democracy nearly impossible.

We need to rethink this:

It has become impossible to go a week without reading a story about police brutality, abuse of power and misuse of authority. Michael Brown’s murder represents the tip of a body pile, and in just the past month, several videos have emerged of police assaulting people, including pregnant women, for reasons justifiable only to the insane.

It is equally challenging for anyone reasonable, and not drowning in the syrup of patriotic sentimentality, to stop saluting, and look at the servicemen of the American military with criticism and skepticism. There is a sexual assault epidemic in the military. In 2003, a Department of Defense study found that one-third of women seeking medical care in the VA system reported experiencing rape or sexual violence while in the military. Internal and external studies demonstrate that since the official study, numbers of sexual assaults within the military have only increased, especially with male victims. According to the Pentagon, 38 men are sexually assaulted every single day in the U.S. military. Given that rape and sexual assault are, traditionally, the most underreported crimes, the horrific statistics likely fail to capture the reality of the sexual dungeon that has become the United States military.

Chelsea Manning, now serving time in prison as a whistle-blower, uncovered multiple incidents of fellow soldiers laughing as they murdered civilians. Keith Gentry, a former Navy man, wrote that when he and his division were bored they preferred passing the time with the “entertainment” of YouTube videos capturing air raids of Iraq and Afghanistan, often making jokes and mocking the victims of American violence. If the murder of civilians, the rape of “brothers and sisters” on base, and the relegation of death and torture of strangers as fodder for amusement qualifies as heroism, the world needs better villains.

That’s harsh, but this guy wants to be fair:

It is undeniable that there are police officers who heroically uphold their motto and mission to “serve and protect,” just as it is indisputable that there are members of the military who valiantly sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Reviewing the research proving cruelty and mendacity within law enforcement and the military, and reading the stories of trauma and tragedy caused by officers and soldiers, does not mean that no cop or troop qualifies as a hero, but it certainly means that many of them are not heroes.

Acknowledging the spread of sadism across the ranks of military also does not mean that the U.S. government should neglect veterans, as they often do, by cutting their healthcare options, delaying or denying treatment, and reducing psychiatric services. On the contrary, if American politicians and pundits genuinely believed that American military members are “heroes,” they would not settle for sloganeering, and garish tributes. They would insist that veterans receive the best healthcare possible.

Of course, but then there’s this leap:

Improving and universalizing high quality healthcare for all Americans, including veterans, is a much better and truer way to honor the risks soldiers and Marines accept on orders than unofficially imposing a juvenile and dictatorial rule over speech in which anything less than absolute and awed adulation for all things military is treasonous.

That seems an unnecessary aside, but this isn’t:

One of the reasons that the American public so eagerly and excitedly complies with the cultural code of lionizing every soldier and cop is because of the physical risk-taking and bravery many of them display on the foreign battleground and the American street. Physical strength and courage is only useful and laudable when invested in a cause that is noble and moral. The causes of American foreign policy, especially at the present, rarely qualify for either compliment. The “troops are heroes” boosters of American life typically toss out clichés to defend their generalization – “They defend our freedom,” “They fight so we don’t have to.”

No American freedom is currently at stake in Afghanistan. It is impossible to imagine an argument to the contrary, just as the war in Iraq was clearly fought for the interests of empire, the profits of defense contractors, and the edification of neoconservative theorists. It had nothing to do with the safety or freedom of the American people. The last time the U.S. military deployed to fight for the protection of American life was in World War II – an inconvenient fact that reduces clichés about “thanking a soldier” for free speech to rubble. If a soldier deserves gratitude, so does the litigator who argued key First Amendment cases in court, the legislators who voted for the protection of free speech, and thousands of external agitators who rallied for more speech rights, less censorship and broader access to media.

Wars that are not heroic have no real heroes, except for the people who oppose those wars.

Masciotra goes on like this, making good points but undercutting them with overheated rhetoric sure to anger everyone with a yellow ribbon on the bumper of their SUV or pickup truck, but he persists:

Far from being the heroes of recent wars, American troops are among their victims. No rational person can blame the soldier, the Marine, the airman, or the Navy man for the stupid and destructive foreign policy of the U.S. government, but calling them “heroes,” and settling for nothing less, makes honest and critical conversations about American foreign policy less likely to happen. If all troops are heroes, it doesn’t make much sense to call their mission unnecessary and unjust.

That seems to be the main point here. This hero business shuts down conversation. It stops rational thought. No distinctions are possible:

Calling all cops and troops heroes insults those who actually are heroic – the soldier who runs into the line of fire to protect his division, the police officer who works tirelessly to find a missing child – by placing them alongside the cops who shoot unarmed teenagers who have their hands in the air, or the soldier who rapes his subordinate.

It also degrades the collective understanding of heroism to the fantasies of high-budget, cheap-story action movies. The American conception of heroism seems inextricably linked to violence; not yet graduated from third-grade games of cops and robbers. Explosions and smoking guns might make for entertaining television, but they are not necessary, and more and more in modern society, not even helpful in determining what makes a hero.

What makes a hero? The situation is much like those sunny afternoons at that vaguely French bistro at Sunset Plaza here on the Sunset Strip. It’s Hollywood. Assume everyone you see is famous. It makes things easier for everyone.

And then there’s this:

According to Robert O’Neill – the former Navy SEAL who claims he shot Osama bin Laden – the Al Qaeda leader “died like a pussy” and “knew that we were there to kill him.”

In a previously unreleased audio interview aired last night on CNN, O’Neill told freelance journalist Alex Quade that he had used details of bin Laden’s death to bring closure to the families of 9/11 victims, saying “One thing I tell them is ‘All right, Osama bin Laden died like a pussy. That’s all I’m telling you. Just so you know. He died afraid. And he knew that we were there to kill him.'”

O’Neill now makes a lot of money giving talks about heroism to those 9/11 families. This is his marketing gimmick, and he’s doing fine:

On Tuesday, Fox News will air a highly-anticipated documentary about a former Navy SEAL named Robert O’Neill, who claims to be the man who fired the shot that killed Osama bin Laden. Several of O’Neill’s former brothers-in-arms are coming forward to say his story is way, way off…

Fox, where Rudy Giuliani is still a regular, will draw a huge audience for this, but it seems that those who know the truth believe the “point man” – the first man up the stairs in the compound – fired the shot that killed bin Laden, and has since stuck to the SEAL code and remained anonymous, while many in the SEAL community grumble about O’Neill’s grandstanding and declare his version of events “complete bullshit” – and a dangerous lapse in operational security. No one is supposed to know how any SEAL team works, or even who they are. O’Neill doesn’t care:

“You can quote me on this bullshit,” said O’Neill.

Bin Laden’s alleged killer also told Quade that SEAL Team Six was sent after the Al Qaeda leader “because they wanted him dead” and that “it doesn’t matter anymore if I am ‘The Shooter.'”

“I don’t give a fuck,” said O’Neill.

Is this guy a hero? Fox News thinks so. Those who pay him his big speaking fees think so. His unit thinks he’s a jerk, and a liar, and dangerous to them. But he’s having his fifteen minutes of fame. Somewhere, Andy Warhol is smiling.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The Hero Business

  1. SalvaVenia says:

    Many thanks for these true elaborations. :)

  2. Rick says:

    You forgot to mention sports “heroes” and guitar “heroes”, and even my favorite, Lassie, who was a hero just for leading people to where someone had fallen down a well, even if she risked neither life, limb, nor her job in doing that.

    And I suppose the Islamist word for hero is “martyr”, which applies to any Muslim who died either in the process of trying to murder somebody, or else was collateral damage in some suicide bombing. But you’re right, at some point, adulation seems to lose all meaning.

    Having always thought as a kid that a hero was someone who risked himself to save somebody else — my visual was usually a fireman rushing into a burning building to save a baby — I began to wonder, after I heard people call John Glenn a hero just for flying on a rocket into space. Yeah, he was risking his life, but he wasn’t saving anybody’s baby; he was doing it for fame and glory, something lots of other guys wanted desperately to do instead of him. But I finally realized he was risking his life for his country and the progress of mankind, so okay, he was a hero — at least as much as that ant was in “Bug’s Life”, who bravely ventured out into the outside world seeking help in fighting those grasshoppers.

    I think this modern day dichotomy between civilians and military, which led to this calling everyone in uniform a hero, rose out of the fog of war in Vietnam, in which soldiers who claimed they risked their lives for their country, complained because they got no parades when they came home, and that some were allegedly even spit upon. The problem back then was, many of us thought it was a stupid war that we shouldn’t have even fought, but on the other hand, we didn’t necessarily want to blame the soldier, who likely had been drafted in the first place, and was just doing what we had asked him to do, whether or not he agreed with the policy.

    But what, on the other hand, if he DID agree with the policy, and said I was chicken shit for wanting to avoid having to kill anyone (or be killed) by fleeing to Canada? It got confusing.

    And so the legacy of all that history carried forward to Iraq, even though the military was by that time voluntary. Those of us who remembered the earlier dilemma of everybody conflating political belief with patriotism — not wanting our political druthers to be misinterpreted as ingratitude to those fighting the fights we’d rather not have fought anyway — just give up, say “Thank you for your service”, and let it go at that. End of discussion.

    My neighbor, who worked as a civilian employee of the Army, including one tour in Afghanistan and another in Iraq where her convoy was attacked, has her own answer to “supporting the troops” who fight our wars:

    “No real need to thank them for their service,” she claims. “We already show our gratitude in a way they do appreciate. It’s called ‘Combat Pay.’ ”


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