Heroes and heroines are scarcer than they’ve ever been,
So much more to lose than win,
The distance never greater.
–Mary Chapin Carpenter
Thirty-seven years ago, I was shipped off to fight in a war we would later be told had no heroes. Most of the people who told us that, of course, were guys who never went to that war. Some had daddies who kept them out of harm’s way and others simply had sympathetic draft boards that agreed when they said they had “other priorities” than getting their butt shot off in a war. The rest of us came home to wrestle with real time animosity from those we were told we were protecting and nightmares that echoed equally with the screaming of the wounded and the stillness of the dead.
Times and circumstances change. When yesterday’s counterfeits become today’s commanders, all soldiers, we are told, are heroes. It’s a delicate thing, this juggling the illusion of heroism with the reality of heroes. We bandy the word “hero” about quite frequently these days and lavish it on people who have done little more than become millionaires by playing kids’ sports or starred in movies pretending to be something they aren’t. That’s no surprise as fewer and fewer Americans have any experience in national service of any kind and fewer have combat experience.
Those who know the terror of combat know the hollow ring of the word “hero.” One guy who served in the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam summed it up best for most combat soldiers when he said, “a hero ain’t nothing but a sandwich.” Ernest Hemingway said that after so much meaningless talk about abstractions like glory, honor, courage, hero, and hallowed, that “only the names of places had dignity.”
That is not to say, of course, that there aren’t legitimate, bona fide heroes. Some us walk the earth and pound keyboards because of honest-to-God heroes. A man named John Holcomb saved my life in a fire-swept landing zone near the Cambodian border. He did so at the cost of his own life. His reward was the Medal of Honor. Mine was the chance to live and the responsibility to remember. Verily, heroes and heroines have made their mark on the world and on our nation in ways that have little or nothing to do with war. One reason many of those real heroes go unrecognized due to our skewed perspective. At a time when news pages are for sale and the government is an eager purchaser, perception management has become more important than military strategy. So to make the life and service of the soldier something to envy and admire, perception managers make all soldiers heroes. Media outlets, anxious to appear patriotic and eager to avoid the obscenity of the treatment inflicted on Vietnam veterans, are enthusiastically buying in to that idea. How else can you explain the Thanksgiving Day editorial cartoon in the Buffalo News? That illustration included the names of the 22 (now 23) Western New Yorkers killed in under the headline “22 REASONS TO BE THANKFUL THIS YEAR.” Unless we embrace the notion of everyone as a hero, how do we accept the notion we should be “thankful” for his or her sacrifice? In the general assignment of heroism, we blur the lines between true heroics and honorable service. All those who have died are honorable but all are not necessarily heroic.
More importantly, there is something more pernicious underlying the perception management of this war. If the governors of this war can sell notion of universal heroism, it is easier to deny the universal fact that those serving and dying are victims. We can only celebrate heroes. We can only be “thankful” for the death of heroes. We don’t celebrate victims. We mourn them. When we mourn them, we question the reason for their deaths. When we question the reason, we must face the truth of how we chose to go to war and the purpose for which lives are being sacrificed. The fallacious reasoning and flawed planning and inept execution of the war lead, inescapably, to the victim-ness of all those serving and dying. The military’s own studies have pointed out the shortcomings of consequences of our rush to war. Even if one accepts the reasons we were told that war was acceptable, faulty equipment, inadequate supplies, profiteering, fraud, and sheer incompetence have been the watermarks of the Iraq war.
If you send a soldier into combat without functional body armor, he or she could become a hero but they begin as a victim.
If you send vehicles in a convoy without proper armor, your soldiers could become heroes but they are always victims.
If radios don’t work, if machine guns are in short supply, if the armed forces of the world’s last superpower are badly equipped, soldiers are victimized no matter how much spin-doctors try to lionize them.
I tendered a Veterans Day speech to a group of Jewish war veterans. It was an honor to be in the midst of so many proud and patriotic men who did their duty, primarily in World War II. I sat with a violin virtuoso who played in the Philharmonic for half a century. Across the table was a renowned artist whose work hangs in many prestigious galleries. As proud as I was to be in such company, there was an undeniable sadness when I wondered how many artists and musicians and doctors and authors and humanitarians never got a chance to realize their futures because war stole it from them.
In World War I, Siegfried Sassoon wrote “in war-time, the word patriotism means suppression of truth.” It is tragic how the lessons of Sassoon’s war have been lost. We are still trying to suppress the truth, to distort it, and to manipulate it.
In the end, though, we are faced with the same task that faced Rudyard Kipling faced in writing the epitaph for his son who died in WWI. Kipling’s pain stripped away the specious pretenses of “the Great War” and he was left to confront the truth when he wrote these words:
When they asked why we died here
Tell them it was because our fathers lied.
Stephen T. Banko III was awarded two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, the Air Medal and four Purple Hearts. He has long been active in veteran’s affairs. firstname.lastname@example.org