In Stephen Marche’s Esquire piece, “State of the American Hero,” he’s incredibly critical of the idea that simply being a solider is enough to make someone a hero. His argument is that this false understanding of heroism is a natural outgrowth of a culture that insists on each person’s unique and positive contribution:
Now anyone who acts upon a sense of duty to others is exceptional, freakish, to be singled out. The participation culture we all grew up with to boost our fragile self-esteem — everyone gets a ribbon for showing up — has entered adult life. Have a job? You’re a hero. Look after your kids? Hero. Occasionally think about people other than yourself? Truly, you are a hero.
The decline in our heroism standards has been sharp and swift. The classical sagas about the nature of heroes focused on how nearly impossible it is to be the real deal.
On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to this argument about our culture. I don’t want to reward my child for getting out of bed in the morning or for eating his lunch because I don’t want him to end up as one of the talentless “American Idol” hopefuls who has never before heard this his voice isn’t worthy of a lucrative recording contract.
On the other hand, though, Marche is clearly wrong. When it comes to the men and women who serve in this country’s armed forces, he’s missing an incredibly important point that explains why they are frequently singled out for praise. He wants to suggest that this has so much to do with political calculations by our leaders, which then seems to trickle down to the public at large. But at a time when it’s dangerous to serve in the military — and when it’s not uniformly recognized as a noble thing to do — it takes a real measure of courage to enlist. And Marche misses this point entirely:
To be a hero is to do the heroic, to reach above the call of duty. The men and women returning this year are just less selfish and privileged than everybody else. They have done their job. In a previous era we would call them something else — normal Americans.
Not that long ago, serving your country used to be something everybody did — part of the deal, a requirement for acceptance as a member of the species.
What he’s saying is that it was never heroic simply to serve, even when everyone was doing it. It was just doing one’s duty. But what he neglects to mention is that it used to be compulsory; we didn’t have the option not to do our duty. Now, of course, one chooses to enlist, one makes the active assertion that military service is one’s duty. And that’s what opens up the opportunity for heroism. Because enlisting is optional, one must actively choose to make sacrifices, to put oneself in harm’s way. Without the choice to stay home, it’s much more difficult to make the case that there is a measure of heroism simply in someone’s service in the armed forces. But since it’s not necessary, and since the rewards often seem not to outweigh the risks, it makes sense to me to praise those who enlist.
It’s surely much better to think of these men and women when we think of heroes than it is to think of entertainers, though it’s surely far more common to think of the latter today.
HT: Steve Smith.
Update: On the most recent episode of The Hero Report podcast, Matt Langdon and I spend a good deal of time discussing this blog post, asking whether all soldiers should be considered heroes, and tackling some of the claims and counterclaims