Sunday, April 23, 2006

"...We are Lacking Heroes..." ???

I just watched with but half an ear "The Heartland with John Kasich" on FOX News. His style of animated intensity kind of turns me off, so I can’t normally bear to give him my full consideration. What DID draw my attention was a remark he made to the mother of Mark Bingham, Alice Hoglan, as they discussed the release of the film “Flight 93.” I was shocked to hear him casually remark, “…What we are lacking these days are heroes; we don’t have enough of them…” My immediate reaction was to sit up and shout, “You have GOT to be kidding me Kasich!”

Maybe I’m being a bit sensitive with his throwaway line, and perhaps taking it a bit out of context, but his casual comment highlights exactly what Richard K. Kolb writes about in his article “
Society & the Soldier” as featured in the April VFW Magazine. At the start of his article, Kolb asks a poignant question and it deserves some soul-searching examination:

“Only a fraction of the population is making a sacrifice in the current wars. What does this mean for the nation’s well-being?"

Before going on to Kolb's article, what is frustrating is that we HAVE hundreds of heroes AND their stories available to us; and THAT is what bothers me about the Kasich comment. He seems to ignore the THOUSANDS of couageous folks who are serving at THIS VERY MOMENT in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in other places we are not aware of in The Terror War.

Among THESE stout-hearted volunteers are the UNQUESTIONABLY heroic, men and women who have been decorated for acts of bravery—winners of Medals of Honor, Silver Stars, Air Force and Navy Crosses, Bronze Stars, and Purple Hearts. Yet, most Americans are completely oblivious of the actions that resulted in the award of these medals. Why is this? In fairness to John Kasich, he features a few of these brave men and women, but not NEARLY often enough.

I don’t completely blame the media—news organizations report what interests their viewers, and evidently, Americans for the most part don’t want to be upset by “The War.” I find this extremely troubling, and it supports my contention that those of us who serve, who have served, and intend to serve are different and might well be on a higher moral and patriotic plane apart from the millions of civilians who would NEVER consider, for any reason, the concept of joining the armed forces. It seems to me that many of these folks deal with their selfish (or perhaps unmindful) attitude by simply ignoring anything to do with the military, or worse, by denouncing the military or anything to do with The War.

Below is Mr. Kolb’s article wherein he observes similarly that there is a gulf of mindset between servicemen and women AND their civilian citizen counterparts. If you can bear to, take a look at your own heart and consciense as you read. Also, I’ve written two earlier related posts: “
Serve for Citizenship,” and “Serve for Citizenship -- a Response.” I must warn you, all three pieces may be difficult to read if you have never served.


“America is divided between the vast majority who do not serve and the tiny minority who do,” T. Trent Gegax and Evan Thomas wrote in Newsweek. In fact, only four-tenths of 1% of citizens wear a military uniform, even amidst the highly touted war on terrorism.

Let’s take a look at what some other commentators have had to say about this state of military affairs in America today.

“Americans may love their military,” Loyola University political scientist John Allen Williams wrote in 1999, “but it is in the same way they might love their Rottweiler: They are happy enough for the protection but do not want to become one themselves.” Serving in the armed forces is “as unfathomable as life on another planet,” he concluded.

Consequently, few citizens have a direct link to those who do serve. Princeton University political economist Uwe E. Reinhardt calculated that “no more than 10 million Americans have any real emotional connection to these wars.”

In his Washington Post essay entitled “Who’s Paying for Our Patriotism?” Reinhardt figured “these wars visit no sacrifice of any sort—neither blood nor angst nor taxes— on well over 95% of the American people.”

None of this should come as any surprise. As Scott Curthoys wrote in Army Times: “Since the war in Vietnam and the end of compulsory service, the military has become an entity increasingly outside of American society—an organization that serves the society but is not really of the society. As a result, most young Americans are content with letting someone else do the fighting.”

Indeed, they are, and so are their parents. “America’s elite would prefer somebody else’s daughters to die rather than one of their own sons,” says Northwestern University military sociologist Charles Moskos.

Guilt is Well-Placed

There is little dispute on this point, and much to sustain it. Under the heading “Patriotic Guilt” in the Los Angeles Times, 28-year-old Oren Rawls readily admitted: “I know full well that relatively few in my generation buy into the ‘for flag and country’ bit, and that my sense of patriotic guilt would probably make for a good joke or two in the service. The honest truth is that nothing less than a full-fledged draft could get me to put on a uniform.”

This does not bode well for national cohesiveness. What we have is “a society which pays a fraction of its population to take all the real risks of citizenship,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The reality is you will have had a group of Americans who bore almost all of the burden of citizenship. For most Americans it [the war] is being fought by other families’ sons and daughters, who are both out of sight and often out of mind.” As Thom Shanker succinctly put it in the New York Times: “America is not a nation at war, but a nation with only its military at war.”

And that military has only a handful of service-age males among its ranks. As Moskos observed of serving in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: “It’s not a generational experience.”

Support for those in uniform is strong. But is it superficial? Do those on the lines think it is genuine? In a Time essay—“The Danger of Yellow Ribbon Patriotism”—Joe Klein quoted an Iraq vet as saying, “You just get the feeling that the rest of the country doesn’t understand. They’re not part of this. It’s peacetime in America, and a few of us at war.”

Moskos agrees: “The whole country is undergoing patriotism lite.” While troop support efforts receive well-deserved publicity, some symbolic gestures such as sporting bumper stickers demand little. “These acts are small ways of showing some recognition, because we’re not doing it any other way.”

Societal Covenant Inviolate

With the absence of a draft and the underlying notion of civic obligation lost for more than a generation now, the rest of the country does not get it. What does all this mean for the nation’s future defense? Joan Vennochi, writing in the Boston Globe, answered this way: “Understanding history means understanding that countries are born, survive and flourish because individuals are willing to die for them.”

Still, those serving and their families are content with what exists in terms of support. “I think that’s the difference,” Army wife Jacqui Coffman told the Los Angeles Times. “When you go back to Vietnam, you were looking at the American public actually disliking the American soldier. That isn’t true anymore.”

Is that enough, though? Like all wars, soldiers want their sacrifices to have meaning. As one serviceman told his mother before he was killed in Iraq, the prayer of every warrior is universal: “Just don’t forget me.”

Remembrance is crucial, but so is assisting those who survive near death. “As a society, we still do not know how to welcome home the wounded warrior—how to express deep appreciation and respect at the same time as profound grief,” Nancy Sherman wrote in the Boston Globe. Her book on this subject called Stoic Warriors will soon supplement Sherman’s editorial, “When Johnny Comes Home.”

Like many other Vietnam vets, Marine veteran and Los Angeles Times staff writer John Balzar is greatly concerned about the post-war reception. “Today’s heroes are in danger of becoming tomorrow’s damaged goods,”

Balzar wrote in the paper. “Public opinion can be fickle.”Balzar got to the essence of the matter. “How society collectively greets and treats overstressed veterans, now and in the years to come, is one of the most significant factors in whether they heal and how quickly,” he wrote.

Veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, no matter how small their relative numbers, are bound to make valuable contributions to the society for which they sacrificed so much. Just as their predecessors have done.

Early on, Army Special Forces Maj. Roger D. Carstens offered this assessment in USA Today: “They will throw their war-born maturity and wisdom into driving the machinery that runs this country. They will run ethical and energetic companies; provide expert and values-based service to your families; serve us well in elected office; and raise their children to be good citizens.”

That is quite a bargain for a society that gives so little in return.

Society has a pact with its armed forces. That unwritten agreement is implicit in its intent. It’s an obligation more important than ever, with so few protecting so many. Thomas Mockaitis, a DePaul University history professor, has called this pact “A Covenant with the American Soldier.”

No matter the ultimate outcome of the wars, we as a nation have a debt to repay long after the fighting stops.

So, as Knight Ridder senior military correspondent Joseph L. Galloway asked, “What are we doing as a people and a nation to deserve the service and sacrifice of such men and women?”


Ed said...

I haven't finished reading the article but I wanted to comment on heroes in general. I think we also lack for heroes but for a different reason. I think society has degraded the definition of hero to the point where we are flooded with them and have diluted hero status. These days, every firefighter or police officer or soldier is given hero status for nothing other than their occupation. Doing what you are paid, hired or volunteered to do is not heroic. Going well above and beyond the call of duty is. I know that everytime I open the paper or listen to the evening news, somebody is calling someone a hero and it is to the point where I don't even read the articles or listen to the story. There are heroic soldiers and they win medals recognizing this but not every soldier is a hero in my book. And before you say it, just because I don't believe they are heroes for fighting for our country doesn't mean I don't support them or make me unpatriotic.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I would never accuse you of such a thing Ed, not my style. I don't believe in getting personal. I try to speak in broad terms.

You make a good point about the definition of heroes. In my opinion, NO professional sportsman is a hero, maybe a good guy, but certainly not a hero.

I have to say, I don't quite understand your comment that our GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan do not necessarily qualify for some level of hero status. I assert that it DOES take a certain level of bravery just getting on a plane and heading into a warzone. Most Americans can't even imagine what that is like. The same thing goes for police and firemen; depending on where their precinct is, they never know if their day of reckoning will be their current one.

Besides, my point is that we have troops earing medals for heroism everyday, real above and beyond the call of duty stuff; yet we rarely hear of them. Wouldn't you like to read about those courageous men and women? I'll bet you would, but most of our fellow citizens just don't seem to care.

Ed said...

It seems like everyone falls down on their knees and worships soldiers, firefighters and police officers these post 9/11 days. There are many professions (and yes soldiering is a profession) more dangerous and where more people lose their lives and yet they aren't given hero status. For example, the top ten most dangerous jobs per fatality rate statistics are as follows:

1. Timber Cutters
2. Fishers
3. Pilots and Navigators
4. Structural Metal Workers
5. Diver-Sales Workers
6. Roofers
7. Electrical Power Installers
8. Farm Occupations
9. Construction Laborers
10. Truck Drivers

I've held two jobs (8 and 9) more dangerous than firefighters or police officers and yet nobody classifies me as a hero, nor should they. I was just doing my job.

Likewise, a solider is just doing their job fighting a war. Yes it is noble, yes it is brave, yes I respect the hell out of them but no, I don't think they are heroes. Maybe some, but not most or all.

A timber cutter lays his life on the line so that I can buy a 2x4 at Menards and is more likely to die than a modern day soldier, firefighter or police officer. Should he be given hero status?

Lastly, you would win the bet because I would like to read more about those soldiers that win medals and you are also right that most people don't seem to care. Maybe they are like me, they are overwelmed with all the "heroes" we have these days.

Ed said...

...and as always, I find much pleasure in our discussions and your style Phil is certainly classy in my book.

PhilippinesPhil said...

As I already emailed you Ed, I'm going to let you have this one, albeit grudgingly.

I've met many Silver Star, Bronze Star, and even a couple of Medal of Honor winners, and none of them has ever considered themselves a hero. I would argue with you though, that the difference between a roofer and a marine on patrol in Iraq is more than subtle. One of them does a dangerous job and can choose not to at any time; the other puts himself knowingly in harms way and does so for something bigger than himself, even for something bigger than his family and to earn his daily bread. (few of us joined the military for the "big bucks."

Regardless, as I suggested above, a hero is in the eye of the beholder. I think there are multilevels of heroes; just as we award different valourous decorations depending on the bravery of the deed. The highest measure of heroism is when the doer risks his own life, or more often, sacrifices his life to save others. No one can possibly argue with that definition.

I agree with you though, that just doing a dangerous job doesn't make you heroic. I worked on fighter aircraft for two years, and I never felt safe or comfortable around them. It seemed like there was always something ready to bite me, burn me, smash me, run me over, blow me down, and electrocute me at every turn.

If you want to read about a real "American" hero read this one about Raphael Peralta. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, he gave the "last full measure."

Ed said...

Sgt. Peralta is a hero indeed! On a side note, he was also a model immigrant. I wish all immigrants were like him and chose to serve their new country.

You don't have to concede Phil. You said it already with, "...a hero is in the eye of the beholder." A most true statement.

PhilippinesPhil said...

So I win? Whoohoo! (grin!)