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Tomgram: William Astore, Wars Don't Make Heroes

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch readers:If you have a moment, check out my latest piece, "Advice for General Petraeus on the Rules of Engagement: It's Neither/Nor, Not Either/Or." It appeared Tuesday at Juan Cole's invaluable Informed Comment website as part of my minuscule campaign to get word out about my new book,The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's. You can check out the first reviews of the book by clicking here.The next TomDispatch piece will be posted Monday on a slightly slower summer schedule.]

Consider a strange aspect of our wars since October 2001: they have yet to establish a bona fide American hero, a national household name. Two were actually "nominated" early by the Bush administration -- Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old private and clerk captured by the Iraqis in the early days of the American invasion and later "rescued" by Army Rangers and Navy Seals, and Pat Tillman, the former NFL safety who volunteered for service in the Army Rangers eight months after 9/11 and died under "enemy" gunfire in Afghanistan.

Both stories were later revealed to be put-up jobs, pure Bush-era propaganda and deceit. In Lynch's case, almost every element in the instant patriotic myth about her rescue proved either phony or highly exaggerated; in Tillman's, it turned out that he had been killed by friendly fire, but -- thanks to a military cover-up (that involved General Stanley McChrystal, later to become Afghan war commander) -- was still given a Silver Star and a posthumous promotion. Members of his unit were even ordered by the military to lie at his funeral, and he was made into a convenient "hero" and recruitment poster boy for the Afghan War. Both were shameful episodes, involving administration manipulation and media gullibility. Since then, as TomDispatch regular and retired lieutenant colonel William Astore points out, U.S. troops as a whole have been labeled "our heroes," but individual heroes have been in vanishingly short supply.

In fact, the only specific figures who get the heroic treatment these days are our military commanders. They tend to be written about like so many demi-gods (until they fall). General McChrystal, before his ignominious nosedive, was presented in the press (with the Tillman incident all but forgotten) as a cross between a Spartan ascetic and a strategic genius (with the brain of a military Stephen Hawking). Present war commander General David Petraeus regularly receives even more fawning media treatment and seems to be worshipped in Washington these days as if he were not only "an American hero," but a genuine military god (as well as a future presidential candidate). Yet, in the way they've been treated, both of these figures seem closer to celebrities than heroes in any traditional sense.

Perhaps this catches something essential about America's unending wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and also what used to be called the Global War on Terror but now has no name. Like the drone pilots who sit at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, killing peasants and terrorists 7,000 miles away and to whom new standards of "valor" are now being applied, most Americans are remarkably detached from the wars our "all volunteer" military force (and its vast contingent of for-profit mercenary warriors) fight in distant lands. Our forces have become generically heroic, but no one cares to look too closely at the specifics of these bloody, dirty wars that will never end in victory, not close enough to end up with actual heroes. Our "heroic" troops have no real names, any more than the wars they fight, and so individual heroics are perhaps beside the point. (Check out the latest TomCast audio interview in which William Astore discusses heroism and the military by clicking here, or to download to your iPod,here.)Tom

"Our American Heroes"
Why It's Wrong to Equate Military Service with Heroism

By William J. Astore

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I loved reading accounts of American heroism from World War II. I remember being riveted by a book about the staunch Marine defenders of Wake Island and inspired by John F. Kennedy's exploits saving the sailors he commanded on PT-109. Closer to home, I had an uncle -- like so many vets of that war, relatively silent on his own experiences -- who had been at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941, and then fought them in a brutal campaign on Guadalcanal, where he earned a Bronze Star. Such men seemed like heroes to me, so it came as something of a shock when, in 1980, I first heard Yoda's summary of war in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker, if you remember, tells the wizened Jedi master that he seeks "a great warrior." "Wars not make one great," Yoda replies.

Okay, it was George Lucas talking, I suppose, but I was struck by the truth of that statement. Of course, my little epiphany didn't come just because of Yoda or Lucas. By my late teens, even as I was gearing up for a career in the military, I had already begun to wonder about the common ethos that linked heroism to military service and war. Certainly, military service (especially the life-and-death struggles of combat) provides an occasion for the exercise of heroism, but even then I instinctively knew that it didn't constitute heroism.

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). That a snappy uniform or even intense combat in far-off countries don't magically transform troops into heroes seems a simple point to make, but it's one worth making again and again, and not only to impressionable, military-worshipping teenagers.

Here, then, is what I mean by "hero": 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).

"Hero," sadly, is now used far too cavalierly. Sportscasters, for example, routinely refer to highly paid jocks who hit walk-off home runs or score game-winning touchdowns as heroes. Even though I come from a family of firefighters (and one police officer), the most heroic person I've ever known was neither a firefighter nor a cop nor a jock: She was my mother, a homemaker who raised five kids and endured without complaint the ravages of cancer in the 1970s, with its then crude chemotherapy regimen, its painful cobalt treatments, the collateral damage of loss of hair, vitality, and lucidity. In refusing to rail against her fate or to take her pain out on others, she set an example of selfless courage and heroism I'll never forget.

Hometown Heroes in Uniform

In local post offices, as well as on local city streets here in central Pennsylvania, I see many reminders that our troops are "hometown heroes." Official military photos of these young enlistees catch my eye, a few smiling, most looking into the camera with faces of grim resolve tinged with pride at having completed basic training. Once upon a time, as the military dean of students at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, I looked into such faces in the flesh, congratulating young service members for their effort and spirit.

I was proud of them then; I still am. But here's a fact I suspect our troops might be among the first to embrace: the act of joining the military does not make you a hero, nor does the act of serving in combat. Whether in the military or in civilian life, 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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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