By Dave Lindorff
The teacup tempest over retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s self-evident
remark about John McCain—to whit that flying a fighter aircraft and
getting shot down and captured is not particularly relevant to the
skill set needed to be a president—raises a larger question: Why do
veterans, and particularly the veterans of the criminal and pointless
war in Iraq, or the earlier criminal and pointless one in Vietnam,
automatically get “hero” status, and why are they seen as naturals to
run for higher national office?
I’m sure there are plenty of heroes in the military—people who put
their lives on the line, and even give their lives, for their comrades,
people who give up safe jobs and leave their families for what they see
as a patriotic duty. But let’s face it: the whole recruiting project is
about convincing young men and women that joining the military is in
their self-interest—a way to get ahead, a way to see the world, a way
to get financial aid for college, a way to have some excitement, a way
to get a fat signing bonus so you can buy that new car you’ve been
coveting. And people who sign up for these self-interested reasons are
no more heroic than people who go to work for Merrill Lynch or Wal-Mart.
Furthermore, while there are dangerous posts in Iraq and
Afghanistan, the nature of the military is that the vast majority of
people who wear a uniform just work in offices or motor pools, and face
dangers no greater than workers who do the same thing in civilian life
at home. In fact, in the case of more hazardous work, like heavy
equipment repair or flying cargo planes, it’s probably safe to say that
after years of speedups and of gutting worker safety rules and
inspections, it may be safer working for the Pentagon than working for
a civilian employer.
Beyond that, there are people who are easily as heroic as many of our
uniformed citizens who don’t get any credit for their courage and
dedication to humanity and to their country. How about young doctors
who eschew lucrative careers in plastic surgery to work as GPs in
low-income communities or on Indian reservations? How about Peace Corps
or Vista volunteers who go to dangerous places at home and abroad to
help people improve their lives? The Pennsylvania soldier who died
throwing himself on top of a live grenade to save his buddies is a true
hero. But so is the 23-year-old math teacher slain in Philadelphia last
month who left safe, suburban Minnesota to take a low-wage post
teaching underserved kids in this notorious murder capital. Even in
uniform there are heroes who don’t get credit for their courage. How
about people like Lt. Ehren Watada or Sgt. Camilo Mejia, or other members of the military who risked jail, or even did hard time rather than fight, or continue to fight in an illegal war?
There are heroes in our schools, heroes on the job, heroes who work
in jobs like police officer or firefighter, heroes trying to raise
families in adversity, even heroes in politics (though these are few
and far between!). Most of them aren’t ever recognized by society for
what they do. Not everyone who serves in the military is a hero, and plenty of people who don’t, or won’t, wear a uniform are genuine heroes.
Furthermore, as Gen. Clark noted, wearing a uniform, and going to
war, or even earning a medal, do not make a person better suited for
government or politics. But I’d go him one further. Even having been a
high-ranking officer, and having had significant administrative or
policy-making experience in the military does not make a person any
better suited for an executive or a legislative position in government.
In fact, arguably, it makes a person less well suited for government in
a democratic society. The military is not a place that values open
expression of opinions. It is a top-down organization in which
obedience to “superiors” is valued more highly than initiative and
self-direction. The military isn’t even as democratic as the old
Bolshevik Party. At least in theory, Lenin’s Bolshevik model was
supposed to encourage democratic discussion until a decision was
reached by the leadership, after which there would be discipline and
unquestioned obedience. In the military, the democratic discussion part
is eliminated from the model. What that has to do with democratic
governance I don’t know.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a endless sympathy for the hundreds of
thousands of military personnel, active duty, reservist and National
Guard members, who got dragged off under false pretenses to have to
serve in an illegal war of aggression, even to get seriously wounded or
to die there, and I’m a strong supporter of generous veterans’ benefits
for all of them and for their long-suffering families.
But let’s not cheapen the term “hero” by assigning it to all of
them—especially while ignoring the heroism of those who have refused to
fight, or of those who engage in heroic efforts to better the lives of
their fellow human beings instead of just helping to kill them.
And let’s stop pretending that having worn a uniform somehow
automatically makes someone a better person, and a more competent
leader, than someone who never wore one.
The returned soldiers I’ve known from Vietnam, and the soldiers I’ve
spoken to who have served in Iraq, have for the most part been the
first to say that they don’t feel like heroes. It is, in fact, the
charlatans and political cowards in government who are busy promoting
endless war who are tossing that label around with such abandon. They
are in both parties, and we should recognize their abuse of the term,
“hero” and their fake stances of “respect” and “support” for the
troops, for what it is: cheap political posturing, designed to
intimidate critics of a criminal war.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His
latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006,
and now available in paperback. His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net