11 November 2009

So Tired

It's 10 pm, and soon I will to bed. But being the 11th day of the 11th month, Armistice Day, Veteran's, something popped into mind. As ever, it is dangerous and probably best left unsaid. Yet, as many have found when the years have accumulated, the fear of speaking badly is now less troubling than the fear of not speaking up.

(Unlike others, it seems, I grow more radical with age not more conservative. Those who know me and my contrarian humor will not find this at all odd.)

Why are all our service people called heroes? I know why we do it, the rationale that is. Because we have been working off our Viet Nam guilt since 1975. And Korean vets had little better treatment. We extol them to compensate for those ignored, our national and lingering guilt at ignoring those who served in conflicts the nation was conflicted about.

But does that make them heroes?

Truly some are heroic, facing dangers and rising above and beyond. But most are not heroic in any personal sense. By calling them all heroes, however noble the intent, we subtly tell ourselves they are exceptional, atypical, special.

This is wrong. Serving one's nation should not be exceptional. It should be normal. Behind all our genuine desire to honor those who serve is a deeper shame that we do not all serve.

I did not. But only because I was not called. My number (a phrase now meaningless to those under 50) was low and my turn was coming. The draft ended before it got to me in 1972.

I was terrified then, for lots of reasons, most of them personal and far from political. But I did not seek an exemption because at heart I knew any excuse I got would be equalled by someone else who could not get one as easily as me. My fear was not unique. Every young man felt it. We had a very real, deeply personal, stake in the war and in those who chose to wage it. And this too has been lost.

Now that serving your nation is but another career choice, it has ceased to be what citizens do for their country. The sense of obligation to something larger than self, career, or even family, is gone. Everything is about calculated self interest, even patriotism. It is patriotic to serve but also good business, and better business to be a contractor, and better yet to be a supplier. See, we have even commodified and outsourced patriotism.

Calling our vets heroes is our way of emotionally justifying this commodification, a cheapening into money of something that was once chiefly about duty and honor and courage. We would be a better nation if we had fewer heroes and more citizens. O tempora! O mores!


John A Arkansawyer said...

I lived in Atlanta earlier in the decade, where the little highway trucks that did repairs and so on were labelled "Highway Emergency Response Operation" or some such, spelling HERO.

There's a difference between finding heroism in everyday life and proclaiming it where it isn't exactly.

Robin Edgar said...

Excellent blog post Fred and definitely a prophetic one.

I too believe that the term "hero" has been devalued in our society to the point that it has become almost meaningless.

Robin Edgar said...

Come to think of it you might want to expand this blog post into a heroic Sunday sermon. ;-)

Revwilly said...

Fred, brace yourself. I totally agree with all you wrote in this post. Thank you for writing it, it needed to be said.

My experience with the draft lottery was also very similar to yours. My number was low. Those with the number two lower than mine were drafted.

I too, "grow more radical with age not more conservative."