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 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 wanted. And people who sign up for these self-interested reasons are no more heroic than people who go to work for Merrill Lynch.
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, it’s probably safe to say that after years 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 easily as heroic as many of our uniformed citizens who don’t get any credit for their courage and dedication to humanity and their country. How about young doctors who eschew lucrative careers in plastic surgery to work 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? 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 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, even heroes in politics (though 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 heroes.
Furthermore, as Gen. Clark noted, wearing a uniform, and going to war, do not make a person better suited for government or politics. But I’d go him one further. Even having significant administration experience in the military does not make an officer 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, the 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 in paperback edition). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net