Our Confusion Regarding Heroism and the Medal of Honor
According to squashed:
But I have noticed a disturbing trend in the awarding of these medals, which few others seem to have recognized.
We have feminized the Medal of Honor.
According to Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal, every Medal of Honor awarded during these two conflicts has been awarded for saving life. Not one has been awarded for inflicting casualties on the enemy. Not one.
He then proceeds to dismantle Fischer on the gender dichotomy issue (read more here) and argues that Fischer is making a pretty uninteresting (and poorly constructed) claim against Obama, who awards the Medal of Honor, and against a less religious and straightforwardly masculine way of thinking about the way we fight.
For me, though, all of this actually points less directly to our political situation and the way that gender roles are enforced; instead, I want to suggest, the reason that Fischer’s argument seems so wrong-headed to us has to do with the way that a lot of us, today, think about heroic behavior.
In short, for us, the traditional heroic categories have become muddled and this has resulted in the diminution of one sort of hero when judged by the standards of another, very different sort of hero. No one ought to confuse the actions of John Kerry during the Vietnam War with those of George W. Bush, just as no one ought to expect Kerry or John McCain to behave like Mohandas Gandhi. Of course, to argue that traditional categories have become confused, it’s necessary to present a detailed case regarding those categories. In the book that I’m in the process of writing, I make an argument for three distinct categories of heroism that can be traced back to the earliest Western literature -– Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Plato’s Republic -– and that are complex enough to resonate with us and to assist us in thinking about heroism today.
In making the case for the relevance of classical categories of heroic behavior, my argument proceeds under the assumption that not all heroes are created equal. Though obvious to the Greeks of Homer’s day, this might be something of a surprising statement today. In contemporary society, all behavior that is difficult is classified as heroic: everyone from firefighters to foster fathers and from quadriplegics to freedom fighters are our heroes. But what motivates these people to act heroically and what prevents other people from being heroes? And, in our culture today, what makes one sort of hero appear more heroic than another sort? In order to begin answering these questions, we must untangle one kind of heroic behavior from another, examine the motivations of the particular heroes, and compare some very different heroic behaviors and motivations. This is, essentially, what I do in the first three chapters of the book.
When we fail to recognize that someone like Achilles is very different from someone like Socrates, we run into the problem that Fischer points out to us (in very wrong-headed language). That is, we want our war heroes to also be moral heroes. But this isn’t something we ought to expect from them; Achilles can’t be like Socrates and still be Achilles. What makes Achilles a hero is that he is the best warrior; he excels at killing other people and he earns everlasting glory for doing so. What makes Socrates a hero is that he sacrifices himself for the future of philosophy, benefitting future philosophers and future political communities.
Though he doesn’t know how to say it properly, I suspect that Fischer wants our war heroes to be like Achilles; he wants the best of them to be singled out for the damage they inflict on the enemy. Indeed, when the medal was first created during the Civil War, the language declared that it should be presented “to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection.” What Fischer claims is that we now save our shiniest metals for those who are rescuers rather than accomplished killers. (There’s a real debate about whether Fischer is just flat-out wrong about Medal of Honor recipients; you can find a complete list here and determine for yourself whether, in fact, we’ve always awarded them to rescuers.) He says that the Medal of Honor is being feminized, but that’s likely because he doesn’t fully understand what he’s talking about; what he ought to say is that the Medal of Honor is being Socratized.
On my reading, the reason that the majority of us want even our trained killers to be best known as rescuers is that the Platonic vision of heroism (a Socrates who gives up his life for others) has so throughly trounced the Homeric vision (an Achilles who kills without conscience) as to make the latter look almost villanous by comparison to the former.
If we want the Medal of Honor to be about war heroism, then we can award it to the Achilleses that we put out there to kill and die for our political community; if we want the Medal of Honor to be about moral heroism, then we can award it to the Socrateses who are out there acting on behalf of others (whether on the battlefield or in the agora). Alternatively, we might think about awarding the Medal of Honor to our Achilleses and some other medal to our Socrateses.
But, either way we choose to go with our medals, we ought to toss out the ridiculously outmoded language that Fischer employs; it muddles even further an already confused discussion by suggesting as true what Socrates knew to be false a couple thousand years ago when he argued for women to serve as auxiliaries in the Republic, namely that there is nothing necessarily masculine in what Achilles accomplishes on the battlefield nor anything necessarily feminine in what he accomplishes in his trial and execution.