Who's a Hero?

This treatise promises to alienate me from some friends as well as many strangers.  Still, my understanding of certain words and ideas compels me to write and offer it for publication, regardless any possible personal cost.  While it is not centered upon the precise argument set forth by MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes last Sunday, Hayes's unfortunate statements bring to bear a needed discussion on the meaning of words.

To avoid ambiguity, I am not in the camp of Mr. Hayes.  He and I stand apart in our veneration of the American soldier -- especially those who have fallen in combat.  Still, in this case, I will use his incident as a springboard to explore a concept.  In this case, the word is "hero."

It has become practice in the popular culture to pay homage to America's fighting forces today.  Except for small, marginalized groups such as Code Pink or the Westboro Baptist Church, which perversely seek media spotlights for shocking demonstrations against active-duty or deceased servicemen, the culture readily embraces the nation's fighting forces.  Television PSAs and commercials are rife with appreciative tributes from celebrities and ordinary citizens.  There is a plethora of highly successful military-themed dramas, such as NCIS and Band of Brothers.

Seemingly gone are the Vietnam-era days of widespread vitriol against the American soldier in America.  Even many of Hollywood's denizens are on the appreciation bandwagon, although the sincerity of specific individuals is open to debate.  After all, tributes to America's fighting forces can be good for business these days.  However, a theme runs common throughout much of the discussion of the military today that deserves more scrutiny.  It has become popular to paint with a broad brush all servicemen as heroes.

Marco O'Brien, writing for Military.com, provides ten reasons why young people enlist in the armed services.  Mr. O'Brien served for ten years as a USAF recruiter, so he brings significant experience and credibility to his statements.  He lists their motivations in descending order:  education, money, medical coverage, a career, travel, camaraderie, direction, real-world skills, honor (italics added), and a catch-all "just because."  These reasons are valid, as set forth by the marketing of the armed forces recruitment efforts and the personal reasons of the enlisting personnel.  It is an all-volunteer force.

Note, though, that the reason ranking second to last on the list is the only one that resembles a motivation of selflessness and duty to one's country.  This one reason does not render the others invalid, but it puts a light on how we might assess terms such as "heroes" that connote powerful imagery.  Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th Edition) defines the word "hero" in the context of this discussion as "(1d) one that shows great courage."  Going farther, definitions for the derived adjective "heroic" include "(2a) exhibiting or marked by courage or daring" and "(2b) supremely noble or self-sacrificing."  Nine of the ten enlistment reasons given above do not even tangentially coincide with these definitions.

The argument can be made that these young people may indeed have self-serving impetuses for joining, but that does not imply that they are not ready to sacrifice.  After all, who does anything for purely altruistic reasons?  With this, I would agree in good measure.  Yet many of us who have reached a certain age in life, perhaps in our forties or fifties, can still remember the feeling of invulnerability and self-confidence that youth and agility afford.  Risk-taking was easier, because adverse consequences were relatively small and relatively infrequent.  "Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof," the title track of country singer Travis Tritt's album, is the operative phrase.  It is not that young people think they are actually invulnerable to harm; it is just that by and large, their life experiences have not inculcated fully the potentialities of military service.

Of the some 294,000 U.S. military personnel "in country" in "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and "Operation Enduring Freedom" (source: "Troop Levels in the Afghan and Iraq Wars, FY2001 - FY2012: Cost and Other Potential Issues," Amy Belasco, Congressional Research Service), to date there have been 5,048 combat-related fatalities -- a 2% rate of killed in action.  As a function of total military personnel at the disposal of the United States (approximately 2.315 million officers and enlisted personnel), that rate drops precipitously to two tenths of one percent.  A relatively small fraction of military personnel are committed to combat operations.  An even smaller fraction experience combat.  Many of the aforementioned "9 out of 10 reasoners" know this, at least intuitively.  Through no fault of their own, how many of those not embroiled in combat operations get to distinguish themselves in a manner worthy of the moniker "hero"?

Still somewhat fresh in the minds of many people is the riveting drama that unfolded in the case of Pvt. Jessica Lynch, USA, in the early combat phase of "Operation Iraqi Freedom."  Here was a cause célèbre that evoked the attention of much of the American public as American and allied armored forces were driving inexorably toward Baghdad.  Driving a truck as part of a resupply convoy, the diminutive Pvt. Lynch and the others in her group had driven off course and into an enemy ambush.  The collective mainstream media were aflutter with the opportunity to showcase the exploits of the female soldier in action, as early accounts indicated that Lynch's convoy was first hit by artillery, whereupon she disembarked and emptied magazines of M-16/M-4 ammunition at the enemy in defense of her position.  Badly injured and overwhelmed by enemy numbers, Lynch and others were captured by Iraqi forces.  This, in turn, led to another sensationalized account of a daring SpecOps rescue of Lynch from a nearby hospital.

When the veritable dust of the event had settled, Lynch had not fired a single shot.  She was badly wounded not from actual combat, but from the action of driving off the road and wrecking the truck.  The feminist dream of a real-life "G.I. Jane" evaporated as quickly as it had been manufactured.  In the months following her convalescence and discharge from the Army, Lynch still was paraded on mainstream media talk shows as if a shoe-in for the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Lynch coyly admitted that she was in the Army for the educational benefits and had not counted on the violence found in combat.  She simply wanted to be an elementary school teacher someday, and to "make a difference."  Despite the facts of the incidents, the MSM insisted upon calling Lynch a hero.  She had done nothing heroic.

This is not an indictment of Jessica Lynch.  It is a call to restore meaning to words.

It is fair to say that the United States armed forces represent a cross-section of America.  It is truly representative of all races, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and -- thanks to the Obama administration -- even sexual behaviors.  Is it not also fair to say that the characters of those in the military are equally representative of the nation at large?

There has been a headlong rush to ascribe sainthood to every single person, regardless of location or occupational specialty, who wears a uniform in the armed forces.  What this does is minimalize and denigrate the very real heroic actions of our warriors who knowingly face what may be certain death in the conduct of their martial actions.  It is the Marine who falls on a grenade, thus saving the men around him.  It is the ground attack fighter pilot who, when his munitions are spent and his fuel is low, continues to harass the enemy in order to relieve his fellow soldiers who are penned down.  It is a man like Sgt. First Class Paul Ray Smith, USA, "Operation Iraqi Freedom's" first Congressional Medal of Honor winner, who died manning a .50-caliber machine gun in a defensive position to hold off overwhelming Iraqi forces, thus buying time for his comrades to reach safety and regroup.  These are the actions of heroes.  By definition, not everybody can be a hero.

An honor such as receiving the description of "hero" should not be given or received lightly.  It dilutes the meaning and specialness of the word when it is.  It ascribes virtue where that particular type of virtue may not exist.

Again, this is far from being meant as any indictment on the community of America's fighting forces.  I believe that the world understands that there is no other military or collection of militaries on earth that has offered more of its own blood, liberated more peoples, or defended liberty more than have the American soldier, sailor, Marine, and airman.  This is even more reason to refrain from infantilizing and patronizing them with grandiose labels that do not necessarily apply.  As Thomas Paine so eloquently stated, "[t]hat which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly."