In fact, being a soldier does not make one a hero. True, a minority of soldiers risk their lives in the course of their work (as do fishermen, firefighters, sanitary workers, and miners). But in modern warfare, it is the civilians who are most at risk. Women and children in war zones die in greater numbers than soldiers, who are by definition trained and equipped to survive war.
Some think our soldiers are heroes because they volunteer. But there is no compelling evidence that most soldiers enlist out of courage, unless you stoop to tautologically define courage as the act of enlisting. They volunteer out of an economic calculus, perceiving little opportunity elsewhere; or out of a youthful taste for adventure; or as the keepers of a family's occupational tradition. Differences in socioeconomic background and education predict enlistment patterns far better than individual differences in personal courage. American soldiers are, for the most part, blue collar workers trying to make ends meet. Most soldiers are decent citizens who are trying to do a good job and earn an honest living. And some of them act heroically in the course of their careers; but merely being a professional soldier is not enough to qualify anyone for hero status.
Some say that soldiers are heroes because they demonstrate selfless patriotism. But in this case (as usual) 'patriotism' is the scoundrel's last resort. The twist is that the scoundrels are not the soldiers, but those who laud them. American soldiers right now are not defending their land or their homes. They're defending American ‘interests.' Those ‘interests' are not defined by the soldiers themselves, or by their elected officials or the public at large--if we may be grownups for a moment. They are defined by those who have the money to finance political campaigns and pay lobbyists to push through certain laws, regulations and points of view, i.e. ‘interests.' Those ‘interests' are unlikely to be those of young, working class, increasingly minority soldiers. You could call the soldiers who die for such interests ‘selfless patriots.' But you could also call them, at the risk of offending the knee-jerkingly offended, ‘gullible.'
"Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless," BF Skinner famously said. Wars in particular depend on a manipulation of the young, primarily because the young are so pliable--clad in the youthful fable of invulnerability, bereft of perspective.
Thus, the willingness to personally go to battle has little to do with courage, and much to do with youth. The thrill-seeking young are an easy prey for war intoxication, because war's dirty little secret is that killing is thrilling. Those who have been to battle--like me--know this, if they're half aware and honest with themselves. Those who haven't may want to read up, starting perhaps with Chris Hedges' ‘War is the Force that Gives Us Meaning' or Jonathan Glover's 'Humanity.' War is a primal, illicit high; and like many such highs it attracts the reckless young, lasts a short time, and ends in ruin. But unlike most highs, the war poison is happily promoted and sold by society to its youth.
All the inflated hero talk obscures the fact that the soldiers are primarily pawns. It serves to cover up our guilt over the fact that we, as a culture, are complicit in an ugly sham. We pump the minds of young teenagers full of doomsday scenarios and nationalistic propaganda; we teach them the script of manhood-through-violence; then, we send them away to act it out in the name of some dubious ‘national interest,'--of the kind that tends to line many pockets back home, but somehow never the troops.' Deep down we know we've perpetrated a rouse, so we cover it up with "Rah Rah."
Constructing a new, peace-based narrative and ethos--well, that would be truly heroic; and hence not quite forthcoming anytime soon.