Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

Soldier ≠ Hero

Rethinking the 'soldier-as-hero' narrative

All around you hear American soldiers being called heroes. Such an easy and broad consensus is patently suspicious, like an election where someone gets 99% of the vote. Sweeping consensus may feel good, but it's not always a good thing. Often, it denotes a silencing or distortion of truth. Over praising, psychologists know, often masks hidden resentment, ambivalence and guilt.

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.

Moreover, of all the soldiers in the world, American soldiers have the least to fear. They are the most likely to survive and win the fight. American military spending is roughly equivalent to that of all other nations combined. If anything, American soldiers should be feared. For most clear-eyed observers around the world, the periodic flourishing of America's power lust (see under: Bush years) is rendered even scarier by our insistence that the laws of human nature (i.e. power corrupts) don't apply to us, and by our conviction that the self-serving fiction of America's inherent Godly benevolence and exceptionality should be accepted as fact around the world. The powerful seldom experience their power as problematic. It's true in marriage, in politics, in business, and in 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.

People who do what they are expected, paid, and trained to do are not heroes. They are conscientious workers. Making conscientiousness heroic, as opposed to expected, cheapens the very notion of heroism. Heroism denotes exceptionality: a hero demonstrates superior, rare, and exceptional moral, emotional, intellectual or physical courage where the average person would be expected to fall silent, succumb, or retreat. For a timely example of true heroism one should look to those who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights struggle: they helped change the consciousness of a nation in the direction of light; they did so nonviolently, at great personal risk, and without pay, protective gear, or institutional protection.

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."

The truth is that there is no good war. Every war contaminates all who engage in it. Every war, even a just or necessary one, is an atrocity, a disastrous failure of civilization, a breakdown of humanity's higher faculties, and an eclipse of its worthiest aspirations. Those who mindlessly call soldiers heroes and patriots are not supporting the soldiers but rather perpetuating the vicious cycle of destructive myth, shrill demagogy, and roused tribalism that will lead to the next war. The soldier-as-hero narrative represents, on a deep level, a false consciousness stoked by a society that lacks the moral imagination and political courage to transcend its primitive tribal impulses.

Constructing a new, peace-based narrative and ethos--well, that would be truly heroic; and hence not quite forthcoming anytime soon.

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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