Courage is one thing, heroism quite something else

Several years ago, I wrote a Remembrance/Veterans Day post in which I expressed admiration for the aged veterans of WWII, people whom I came to know through sharing a cardio-fit group with them.

Although my own father had been a combat vet in that war, he and I never spoke about it. When I was young, he was still too traumatized to talk about the war. And when I grew older, he and I had a distancing conflict over my decision during the Vietnam occupation to refuse induction and leave the U.S. permanently. It was through my years on the next recumbent bike to survivors of my father’s war that I came most fully to appreciate their humble but crucial parts in preserving Western democracy, in what is rightly called the last war to ensure freedom.

So it is with a large dose of respect and sympathy for the individuals whom this day honours that on this Remembrance Day I have to agree in large part with David Masciotra’s provocative and hugely controversial Salon article, “You don’t protect my freedom:  Our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy.”

Masciotra’s central point is that reflexive hero-making and hero-worshipping make virtually impossible any complex or truly thoughtful examination of the roles of a miliarized society and foreign wars of commerce. Masciotra argues that there are too many examples of foreign imperialism and domestic police violence for a truly thoughtful person to blithely accept the ultra-patriot’s insistence that putting on a uniform makes you a hero. And the kinds of wars and the kinds of policing that our uniformed protectors do have to raise questions about just what’s being protected: liberty, but not for all? Security, but not for all? Freedom, but for markets, not for us?

It’s at this point that the loud objections usually start pouring in. What do you mean, our veterans and the police, our protectors abroad and at home, aren’t heroes? Of course they’re heroes, you ungrateful jerk! Don’t you understand that they put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis, risking their safety and their lives so that you can stay snugly at home and write crap like this? What do you and your commie friends have against freedom and democracy?

Of course, if you let them, these kinds of questions quickly and completely change the topic. To understand how they do this is to grasp that there’s a categorical difference between courage, commitment, and loyalty on the one hand and heroism on the other.

There is no doubt that soldiers who brave the battlefield have personal courage. They know that they are putting themselves in great personal danger, but they go anyway. Why would they do that? Their courage comes from some combination of commitment to the national doctrines that underlie their decision to join the armed forces in the first place and a feeling of “brotherhood” with their close comrades-in-arms.

These are powerful personal qualities, to be sure. But they are not automatically “heroic,” nor are their possessors necessarily “heroes,” in the modern sense of the word.

In mythology, a hero had superhuman strength or power. By extension, an admired warrior was heroic. And most recently, “hero” has been applied to those with not just extraordinary powers or achievements in battle but to people, men and women, whose behaviour we admire and wish to emulate.

It’s this last meaning that is crucial to the claim that military bravery or police strength is not automatically heroic. You can be appropriately impressed by the personal qualities that many people in uniform exhibit under extreme stress. But that doesn’t mean that you admire their behaviour, or that you wish to emulate their choices and actions.

I remember vividly two incidents from more than 20 years ago. In both cases, I was back in the U.S.A., at a family event, and in both cases I encountered someone from my past, someone I had not seen for a very long time.

At the first event, one of the other guests was someone I had known superficially years before. He had served two tours in Vietnam, while I had refused to serve, and we had not seen each other since. I was a bit anxious when he approached me — our choices and our subsequent lives were so different, and I wondered what he wanted to say to me. To my surprise, he threw his arms around me and gave me a hug. We had never been more than acquaintances, and the intimacy of his action surprised me. He said one thing to me, then turned and walked away: “All of us are victims of that war.” It sounded like he might be crying, although that might just be a memory trick my brain is playing now to enlarge the events then. In any case, we didn’t speak again, and I haven’t seen him since.

Was he a hero? He must have been brave, since he faced great personal danger. But were his actions models for someone else’s? Would we wish his experience on ourselves, or on those we love? I don’t see how.

The second encounter was less dramatic, but not less impactful. Another family event, this one more sombre, where I met after a long separation an old high school friend, one of the ushers at my first wedding, and a fellow induction refuser. Unlike me, my friend had stayed back, preferring personal resistance and possible jail time to emigration. Now, twenty years later, he knocked on the front door of my parents’ house. We spoke quietly for a few minutes, and I was enjoying seeing him again. Until, that is, he started teasing me about still being “hooked by that leftist crap” that he had abandoned for libertarianism. He was living alone in Montana, secure in his self-referential and self-indulgent new politics. All of the liberal idealism that had informed his behaviour was gone. His interests had shrunk to himself and his liberties.

What had happened to my friend, whom I had once admired greatly for the quiet courage with which he had stood up to the military system of his country? If he had once been heroic, in my eyes he certainly wasn’t a hero now. I don’t know what happened to him in the years between that meeting and his too early death a few years ago, but I hang onto the hope that, as Tennyson put it, “something ere the end,” he found again the conviction to do “some deed of noble note.”

The lesson that I take from these two experiences is directly related, I think, to the topic at hand. In the first case, was the soldier a hero simply by virtue of having been a soldier? In the second, was the resister a hero just because he resisted?

The lesson to learn, surely, is that heroism is not conferred by membership in an organization, not by assuming an identity or accepting a role. It is, rather, a more complex mixture of action, thought, and feeling. It’s too complicated for simplistic slogans or knee-jerk idolizations.

And it’s through this realization that I agree with Masciotra. The more we use the term “hero” as a thoughtless and automatic honorific, the less the word means.

So today I remember the veterans, those who came home as much as those who didn’t. But I don’t wear a poppy.

Instead, I wear a wise Mennonite lapel button. It says, simply and truly, “To remember is to work for peace.”


One thought on “Courage is one thing, heroism quite something else

  1. You are right on the mark! It is damn hard to express any thoughts one may have about purloined words, such as “hero”, without being on the recieving end of a diatribe inspired by the bumper sticker level of right wing thinking. I am currently somewhat distressed by the use of the words “love you” as a parting remark for the reasons you expressed.
    The Old Machinist .

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