I never seriously considered what the word “hero” meant until this fall. It was a breezy, cool evening just outside Providence, and I had stopped by a charity function to meet up with a friend who was catering the event. The sun was setting, and in keeping with local tradition, all guests were to stand at attention while a cannon was fired and the American flag was lowered.
Usually, residents or employees carry out this task. But tonight, these duties fell to four seniors from the United States Naval Academy. Shortly before the last rays of sunlight disappeared over the horizon, one of the event’s organizers announced the entrance of these “young heroes,” as he called them. On cue, all four trotted out in mess dress, and as they walked by the crowd, one dinner guest stood up and started clapping. A few more followed suit, and soon everyone was on their feet, whether or not they truly believed the accomplishments of these cadets merited applause.
This moment affected many attendees on a deeply emotional level—a few, overcome by pride and patriotism, were on the verge of tears. But for me, and a silent minority of the crowd, the whole ceremony seemed a bit ridiculous.
As far as I could tell, these students had so far succeeded only at receiving an excellent education. I knew a couple of them personally. Both were good guys, but like anyone they had their flaws. The only thing that made them exceptional was that they were preparing to fight in war, and the mere fact that they were warriors—or at least becoming warriors—was apparently enough to make them “heroes” worthy of universal reverence.
I will concede that when students enroll in a service academy, or when non-academic recruits enlist for that matter, many do so because they are genuinely interested in offering their minds and their bodies to a humane and selfless cause. To thousands of enlistees, and to much of the civilian public, there is no better way to do this than to join the military. The resolve and moral purpose of those that fight out of patriotic conviction is admirable. But let’s not romanticize the moral situation of the soldier; once he puts on the uniform, he divests himself of his ability to act according to his reason and conscience. True, he can choose to spare a life or sacrifice his own. These decisions may still be his. But, for good reason, he cannot question his authorities, nor can he choose which battles to fight or make any decisions of that sort. In many ways, he becomes a pawn, serving the whims of his martial superiors and political leaders. Should his conscience contradict his mission at any point, he is required to ignore this contradiction, lest he be labeled a mutineer or a coward.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with pledging oneself unconditionally to a cause so long as the cause is unconditionally correct. Many hawkish Americans would claim that the actions of our armed forces in the modern era, with only trivial exceptions, have been virtuous—hence the heightened level of hero worship within the neoconservative bloc.
I wish I could be so confident. In Iraq, for instance, I’m not sure the deposition of Hussein was worth the death of 100,000 civilians, especially when he was no longer capable of attacking the Kurds to the north or the Shiites to the south. To cherry-pick a few conflicts from the past several decades, our designs in Vietnam and Guatemala hardly seem heroic in retrospect.
I’m sure a few members of the crowd were equally unsure of the humanitarianism of our foreign engagements, but they were clapping nevertheless. “Intentions matter!” they may say. This argument—that the act of fighting, even in an unjust war, is laudable so long as a soldier is well intentioned—has become commonplace. But its popularity doesn’t make it valid. When there is nothing noble about the ends of fighting, we shouldn’t seek comfort in the dated belief that the act of fighting is noble in and of itself. Yet that’s the argument that we advance every time we clap for a soldier merely for having agreed to take up arms.
Readers may ask: why bother with this whole analysis? Why not let soldiers and their families take comfort in the knowledge that they are regarded as heroes in American society?
One could answer this question in many ways, but the most important reason is that our deification of soldiers makes war more palatable. When we say to ourselves that soldiers do not die in vain, that it is always noble to fight for one’s country, we make the tragedy of wars, past and present, easier to digest. As historian and ex-U.S. Air Force lieutenant William Astore points out in the Los Angeles Times, the overuse of heroic rhetoric among continental powers significantly prolonged World War I, as the act of fighting seemed worthwhile even when the desired end had slipped out of reach.
As I watched that crowd outside Providence cheer and cry for those supposed “heroes” simply because they had agreed to fight, I couldn’t help but fear that our modern fetishizing of the military has a similar effect.
J. Gram Slattery ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.