This is kind of a trick question. It’s a question that is causing great debate on Facebook with a group called “Soldiers Are Not Heroes” created to combat the many pro-soldier groups. It, in turn, has spawned a group created to remove them from Facebook – “Petition to remove “Soldiers are not heroes” from facebook”. These two groups were pointed out to me by Kathy Blau who has been working on the Heroic Imagination Project with Phil and Zeno.
The trick of the question is that there’s not a yes or no answer. Anyone giving a concrete yes or no is generalizing to an extreme. Unfortunately most people on Facebook like to generalize. How’s that for a generalization?
One argument is that soldiers are heroes simply for signing up. That’s possible. There is undoubtedly an element of sacrifice and risk involved in volunteering. However, what do we know of their intent? I can think of a few possible reasons for volunteering. There are plenty more.
- Serving your country
- Wanting to kill people
- Needing money to pay for college
- Wanting to protect freedom
- Family pressure
So, there are some soldiers that made an heroic act in choosing to serve. There are some that did not. I won’t dare to assume which is the larger group.
Can you be a hero if you chose to join the armed forces to help you pay for college? Certainly. What you do once you join opens you up to many opportunities. We’ve seen soldiers throw themselves on grenades to save their comrades. No question of the heroism there – Michael Mansoor is a prime example. Acting alone to save a soldier’s life against great odds is another avenue – Leo Major did that.
I’ve just finished watching the HBO series, “Generation Kill” that was based on a book of the same name. The author was an embedded journalist from Rolling Stone. His observations shown in the TV series inspired this post. I saw soldiers and officers consistently refusing to follow orders from their superiors (interesting use of the word) because they saw how morally wrong they were. That was heroic – it was done for the good of others and with risk of repercussion. I saw an officer get out of his humvee to direct traffic during a night-time ambush. That’s heroic.
That’s a lot of heroes. What’s the opposite of the word hero? There are plenty of them. In “Generation Kill” I saw marines firing on fleeing civilians. I saw an officer twice attempt to bayonet a captured enemy soldier. I saw officers call down bomb strikes on civilian targets. I saw soldiers and officers committing immoral or dangerous (not for them) acts in order to further their careers.
From this article (read this and the comments if you’re interested in this subject), I found YouTube videos of many unheroic acts. Quoted here: “We refuse to blame those who shoot civilians even when the attacks are clearly acts of vengeance; we downplay the war crimes and the routine cruelties; we make excuses for those who shoot the wounded or torture prisoners; even when official Pentagon reports casually mention how a US soldier summarily executed a wounded fighter and shot another wounded, unresisting fighter twice in the back, we pay little notice.”
LarryE, the author of the above article, concludes with this: “Soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things – but the act of putting on a uniform and agreeing to put your conscience in a lockbox for the next so many years does not make your life more important than others, it does not make your opinions and insights more worthy of respect than others, it does not exempt you from moral judgment. It does not make you a hero.”
Soldiers are people. They’re capable of acts on either end of the moral scale, just like you. Just like me. They tend to find themselves in situations that require heroism, or tempt barbarism, more often than you and I are. This is why so many people are quick to label all soldiers as heroes or all soldiers as menaces.
Soldiers are people.
So are firefighters, so are police officers. The people that died in the World Trade Center were people. There are heroic firefighters, there are heroic police officers, and there were heroic victims on 9/11. There are also plenty of bad people in the police force and the fire brigades. Bad people died on 9/11. And then there’s the middle people; the people who haven’t done anything heroic or evil. Perhaps by choice, perhaps by chance.
Soldiers are people.