Note: I served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000-2007. My AFSC was 3C0X1 (Communications computer systems operator). My highest rank was E-5 (Staff Sergeant), and I received an honorable discharge.
“Hero” is a strong word. The label of “hero” comes with a prestigious amount of respect and privilege. It’s only fair that anyone who claims hero-status should have to give full account of why they deserve to hold the title of hero not just to the civilians they expect to be praised by but to the true heroes who can give full account of their hero status lest any false heroes minimize their sacrifices and accomplishments.
The current culture in America has indiscriminately lumped every member of its military into the hero category with no consideration for achievement or distinction for degrees. This is unfair to the civilian population and all true military heroes for several reasons.
1: Not every troop enlists out of patriotism.
Yes, there are many individuals who enlisted because they genuinely wanted to serve their country, be all they can be and selflessly sacrifice themselves for their fellow man. These individuals’ noble intentions put them in the running for hero status, and it’s not fair to give mercenaries equal standing as them.
There are troops who joined the military because they were enticed by an early retirement, free education, travel opportunities, partying, a lucrative and secure pay check, socialized health care for them and their family and all the other practical benefits that come along with being in the military. Some troops even joined as an alternative to prison. Anyone who joined the military for what they could get out of it is a mercenary by degrees.
Granted, they knew there was a chance of death in the line of duty, but every trucker accepts that same risk in their job to deliver goods to consumers across the nation. The big difference between a regular trucker and a mercenary is the mercenary accepts the certainty that they’ll be responsible for killing other human beings (directly or indirectly). If you’d join Murder Incorporated for what you can get out of it, you’ve got a big task ahead of you to explain how that doesn’t make you the opposite of a hero.
2: Not every troop sees combat.
Regardless of why you joined the military, let’s suppose you spend 20 years processing administrative paperwork in a cubicle at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Let’s suppose the closest you come to a combat zone is Ali Al Salem Air Force Base in Kuwait, where you gained 10 pounds from eating stake, lobster, and ice cream bars and returned home with an extra $5000 in separation and hazardous duty pay even though the closest you came to combat was playing paintball in downtown Kuwait City. Would you really tell a Marine (who has done 5 tours in Iraq and lost half his friends in combat) that you’re a hero on the same level as them? No. Hell, no.
Well, if you wouldn’t tell a combat infantry Marine you’re just as much of a hero as them, then don’t tell civilians you’re a combat infantry Marine-level hero, because by my calculations processing paperwork in San Antonio for 20 years doesn’t make you any more of a hero than the taxpayers who paid that Marine’s paycheck.
3: Doing something you’re forced to isn’t brave
Regardless of how close you came to the battlefield, what would happen if you refused to support the mission? Technically, the UCMJ gives the military the right to execute its own troops for going AWOL during a time of war. Granted, in this day and age the negative press that would generate almost guarantees that won’t happen. What will happen though is you’ll go to jail for a few months and then get kicked out of the military with no benefits… but you will get a dishonorable discharge that’s designed to almost guarantee you’ll never be able to earn a living wage again for the rest of your life. This means every soldier is constantly faced with two choices: Support the mission and possibly die on the battlefield or don’t support the mission and face certain destitution by your own leaders.
This means it would require as much of a sacrifice, if not more, to conscientiously object to the mission as it would to support the mission. This means it’s theoretically possible to continue to support a mission you disagree with out of cowardice. This doesn’t mean all troops are cowards. It just illustrates how important it is to make the distinction that not all troops are automatically heroes so as not to lump the hypocritical cowards in with the troops who do genuinely continue to serve out of courage and selflessness.
It also raises an uncomfortable point. The mere existence of the dishonorable discharge will always cast a shadow of doubt on the heroism of any soldier. I don’t say that to be spiteful, at least, not to the troops. I say that to encourage discussion about whether or not the dishonorable discharge should exist at all. Is it just that the military expects civilians to embrace every troop as selfless heroes, but the military itself holds a gun to every troop’s head and orders them to dance or die? Is it mentally healthy to be comfortable with this?
4: Nobody who fights for an oppressive government is a hero
Some troops do willingly fight on the battlefield selflessly and die in the line of combat. Some even willingly and consciously sacrifice their lives in order to save the lives of their fellow soldiers. As taboo as it is to question the heroism of these martyrs, it’s imperative to do so in order to fully validate their heroism.
Consider this. Soldiers died selflessly fighting for Hitler, Ho Chi Mihn, Stalin and Pol Pot. If we made it a rule that any soldier who dies in the line of duty is automatically a hero then we owe every fallen Nazi and kamikaze pilot full hero honors on par with every American soldier who died in the Korean War, the Vietnam War or the Iraq War.
If that doesn’t sound reasonable then we have to ask ourselves if reason ever played a role in our decision to call our soldiers heroes or are we really just saying that any time one of our troops dies they become a hero and anytime anyone else’s troops die, they’re just the bad guy getting what they deserve? If that’s what we’re doing then the only determining factor in who becomes a hero is who wins the war, and that cheapens every hero’s death everywhere.
Even if a man dies in battle, he still needs to pass 2 more tests before he’s granted full hero status. The first question we have to ask is how their unit behaved. Did they maim or kill any civilians? Did they harass and bully civilians? Did they engage their enemy with unnecessary cruelty? Did they torture? Did they kill for sport? Did they use their victims’ skulls as ashtrays? Did they commit any war crimes? Did they break the Geneva Convention?
There is an American War Crimes Museum in Vietnam. It contains pictures of American soldiers committing war crimes. Some of those Americans in those pictures died in the line of combat and received medals. Why should they get a free pass to the hall of heroes? They wouldn’t if they had Nazi flags on their shoulders instead of American flags. But the Nazis killed 6 million Jews and invaded other countries though. Well, America is responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis and has sent troops to as many, if not more countries than Germany. I’m not saying America is the same as Nazi Germany. I’m saying we need to have a measured conversation about America’s military actions without whitewashing over every uncomfortable fact with euphoric propaganda.
This brings me to the second question we have to ask about our fallen soldiers before we write them into the history books as divine heroes, and that is the righteousness of the wars they fight. No matter how valiantly and selflessly any Nazi soldier fought and died, they won’t be remembered as heroes by most of the world because the war they supported was unjust. The American government tells its civilians and soldiers that every war it fights is just, but every single government that has ever gone to war has always told everyone that their actions were just. Therefore, you can never take any government’s reasons for going to war at face value. When a government gives you the reasons why they’re going to war, that’s your cue to question those reasons relentlessly….and that takes courage.
Look at the war in Iraq. Many Americans have lost their lives there. The surviving soldiers spit venom at any civilian who questions the Iraq war, but is it really the civilians who deserve to have their integrity questioned? Any American soldier who expects to be regarded as a hero or at least expects to be exempt from criticism needs to objectively analyze for themselves why America invaded Iraq.
If you look past the propaganda and look at the hard facts you’ll find…nothing. George Bush claimed America had to invade Iraq because Saddam had weapons of mass destruction even though America knew Saddam didn’t have nuclear capability, and the only chemical weapons Saddam had were the ones America sold him. America knew Saddam had used those weapons on civilians years before America used those war crimes as justification to hang him. When it came to light that Saddam didn’t have the weapons of mass destruction General Colin Powell claimed, then George Bush changed his story and said America went into Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people. Years later, the Iraqi people still have their roads blockaded by American troops. So which reason did America go to war? Journalists, Nobel Prize winners, politicians, soldiers, and citizens have been arguing for years about why America went to war in Iraq because there’s no clear answer.
100,000 people dead require a clear cut answer, which the American government has yet to produce. I can’t yield unquestioning trust to a government that can’t give a solid account for why it’s killed so many people and spent so much of its taxpayers’ hard-earned money. Nor can I endorse hero status on soldiers who are killing for a cause with no clear justification. Nor can I exempt soldiers from criticism if I can’t determine with certainty that the cause they serve is just. Nor should you, nor should the troops themselves.
I can’t support the troops if the troops cannot give me a full account of what they’re fighting for. This isn’t disrespectful, arrogant, impudent or ungrateful. This is completely reasonable and justified. In response to everything said here I know that many troops (as well as family members, friends, and supporters of the troops) will respond by saying, “The troops protect your freedoms….” as if that fact justifies everything they’ve done and exempts them from all criticism.
To this I would say, what about the Iraqi’s freedom to travel? What about their freedom from search and seizure? What about their freedom from torture? America backs the Palestinian holocaust, which the rest of the world would step in and end, was it not for America’s military. Even back in America, civilians don’t have the freedom to marry whomever they want. Americans don’t have the freedom of privacy. Our phones are wiretapped. Our genitals are groped at airports. You can’t buy certain books without your name appearing on a CIA or FBI blacklist. Peace activists are put on the TSA terrorist list and lose the freedom to fly. The American government has given itself the right to take anyone in the world to secret prisons to be tortured and denied the right to a fair, public trial. Americans don’t have the freedom to buy alcohol except in limited times and places. Americans don’t have the right to grow medical marijuana.
The troops claim they protect Americans’ freedoms yet America has more people in prison than any other country in the world. Americans don’t have the freedom to choose how their taxes or spent. Americans don’t have the freedom to dispose of a president with a 30% approval rating or a Congress with a 12% approval rating. Americans aren’t protected from predatory financial practices. American women don’t even have the same freedom to take off their shirt that American men have. How can you the American military supports and guarantees Americans’ freedom when it’s illegal for half the population to take their shirt off?
To this you might say, life is better in America than in a lot of third world countries. So Americans should be grateful and not complain. You know why life is cheap and bountiful in America? Because America actively and consistently represses the freedoms, rights, and opportunities of other people so they can be used as cheap slave labor for American companies that have moved their sweatshops overseas. That’s the freedom our precious military martyrs are dying for, and if you’re angry at me for saying that you’re directing your indignation in the wrong direction.
You can even bring the issue closer to home. The enlisted troops of the military themselves are literally slaves who are exploited and subjugated by the military caste system. The troops are made up of American civilians. Therefore the American government is enslaving civilians and justifying it by using the UCMJ as a loophole around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If the American government can enslave 1% of its population and systematically and brazenly brainwash those slaves to belligerently defend their own subjugation then why should I feel safe in America? The American government reserves the right to draft able-bodied men into slavery at any time as long as it claims there’s a need for it, and we’ve seen how reliable its reasons for going to war are.
I’m not impressed by a soldier’s ability to follow orders without questioning them. I’m not impressed by a soldiers’ willingness to die for a cause they don’t understand. I’m not impressed by the freedoms soldiers willingly surrender to men with a track record of authorizing human rights abuses and lying about it. I’m not impressed by how belligerently you tell me I’m ungrateful. I’m impressed by people who question their answers. I’m impressed by people who stand up to injustice in their own house. I’m impressed by troops who refuse to serve politicians who torture whistleblowers.
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Feel free to leave a comment.