A reader of Tom Rick’s military affairs blog makes a good point about how contemporary society and media lavish the word “hero” on practically everyone in uniform, to the point where the meaning of the word and the concept of heroism is being seriously devalued.

The same reader makes the point that because only a tiny fraction of society’s members join the military, and a smaller fraction of those actually see combat, the overuse of the word hero betrays a guilty conscience at the disconnect between society and military.

“Sadly, as Americans we have devalued the word ‘hero’ by applying it to merely the performance of one’s responsibility, much like parents today overly praise their children for everyday accomplishments. Particularly, especially in the media the expression ‘hero’ seems generic and contains a disturbing element of pandering.

Today, there is a vast void between those that wear a uniform and go in harm’s way and those that don’t. We watch from afar as uneasy spectators as our countrymen suffer death and wounds of the flesh and mind for causes we often hold in doubt. So we revert to a hyperbole of gratitude that is seemingly harmless but in fact laced with insincerity.”

I have heard similar points repeatedly of late and they ring true to me. While the quote above comes out of the US context, I would say that the same is true of the Canadian situation. Noah Richler, whose recent book What We Talk About When We Talk About War, makes much the same point when he notes that our rhetoric on Canada’s recently concluded combat mission in Afghanistan belies the fact that less than 1% of the population, as deployed soldiers and their immediate families, were actually touched by that war (compared to 18% of the population in World War One. Afghanistan, Richler writes, “has not even slightly been felt by Canadians other than as that flattering, self-aggrandizing idea” which is reinforced by terms like “Highway of Heroes”.

The Richler quote comes from a May 2 essay in The National Post, and I have not read the book yet, but plan to. While I disagree with some of what I’ve heard him say in interviews, I think Richler, like Ricks’ readers, are on to something. I agree with them that the disconnect between North American elites and their all-volunteer militaries is becoming increasingly profound. Fewer and fewer sons and daughters of moneyed and privileged families choose military service, as witnessed by Mitt Romney’s sons, who their dad claims serve America by serving his campaign rather than by serving in uniform. The rank and file of our volunteer forces come from disadvantaged and marginal parts of the country, as suggested by the claim, sometimes made by military members, that they are the real 1%. The 99% of society is content to outsource its wars to this small minority, in the same way that Victorian England fought its imperial wars with small armies of despised Tommies from the slums, augmented by colonial mercenary minorities from the British Isles and the Empire abroad. Meanwhile, the 99% adopts a sentimentalized rhetoric of heroism, sacrifice, and gratitude to the service of its troops that masks this social disparity.

Please don’t get me wrong, for I am deeply humbled that men and women in uniform are seen as heroes. I know many in the CF who remember and would not return to the days, after Somalia, when they never wore their uniforms in public. I merely wish that there was more honesty in much of our talk about heroism and service. I can’t help but think that true heroism and service, for the rich and for the poor alike, could be better measured by accepting without complaint the call to serve in the military, whether through a national service scheme or through conscription in time of war. That might make our talk of heroism more meaningful.

0 Responses

  1. Very thought-provoking, Padre. I'd certainly agree the word 'hero' is grossly overused nowadays – both in and out of the military.

    Watching a bit of the 24hr coverage of the Olympic Torch's tour through the UK, two carriers caught my eye – one, an old man with Alzheimer's who carried the torch, whereupon he 'walked' using 'the power of sport' (BBC's words) and was therefore a 'hero'. Inspiring, yes, certainly. Heroic, no.

    The fact that he earned the same title as Cpl Ricky Fergusson, a UK soldier from 4 RIFLES who lost both legs, an eye and the fingers from both hands in an IED blast in Afghanistan, is confusing. He won the Military Cross saving the lives of his comrades. Not depreciating the achievements of the Alzheimer's sufferer, it's just about using the word more accurately and sparingly.

    People think in black and white – either you're a 'hero', and if someone says you're not, then you must be a 'coward'. Not true. Just because you might push paper in a rear-line base doesn't detract from the service you're giving to your country; the media should just stop devaluing the word.

  2. Well said.
    I've always been uncomfortable when some guy who gets killed in an unfortunate traffic incident while deloyed is called a 'hero' in the press. But we do have a very black-white media and society. Subtlties aren't very popular.

  3. Its an attitide that been around forever; to quote Kipling

    O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
    But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,


    We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,

    On the other hand, the generation that was raised on Kipling signed up in great numbers when war did come; if the governments that sent them deserved their willingness is another thing entirely.

  4. @James: agreed. In your example, there is something admirable about the unfortunate soldier killed overseas in a mundane accident, in that he or she accepted the military ethic of Unlimited Liability, meaning that service might cost them their life. Is the cae you put more admirable than someone who takes dangerous work to feed their family and then dies in an industrial accident? Not really. I would argue. Both incidents are regrettable and perhaps the circumstances behind those accidents can be addressed. Is either person a hero? I would say not.

    @Lentulus. I was thinking about Kipling when I wrote that post. His Tommy was addressed to attitudes about the regular army, the troops known in 1914 as the old contemptibles. The millions of volunteers who followed them in the so called Kitchener army went with high motives, as you say. What a pity the Great War was so unworthy of their courage and lives.