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Why U.S. troops deserve to be called heroes

A recent Times Op-Ed writer was wrong to say the language we use to honor our service members cheapens real acts of heroism and gives a pass to soldiers who commit atrocities.

July 27, 2010|Dorian de Wind

In his July 22 Times Op-Ed article, "Every soldier a hero? Hardly," retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. William J. Astore lists all the technical, logical and semantic reasons why our fighting men and women should not collectively be called "heroes."

I am one of those misguided people who, when writing about our military men and women slugging it out in Iraq and Afghanistan — engaged in combat, just trying not to get killed or maimed by an improvised explosive device or just driving a truck with supplies across the desert — instinctively and invariably refers to them as heroes.

Let me explain why.

When I refer to U.S. service members as heroes, I do that out of general, across-the-board respect and admiration for them, and out of deep gratitude for the sacrifices they make for our country.

I know darn well that not every one of them fits Astore's definition of a hero: "Someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place."

Still, so many of our military come very close to doing so.

But why nitpick? Why be stingy when it comes to praising our military?

Those few whom Astore would label "real heroes" will still be singled out and honored with the appropriate military awards and decorations reserved for such acts of valor and heroism. I do not believe the "real heroes" would begrudge their brothers and sisters in arms from being referred to as heroes.

I guess I could call our fighting men and women "our brave ones" or "our dedicated ones," but the nitpickers would surely claim that not all of our military members are brave or dedicated.

However, it is beyond nitpicking for Astore to say that calling our troops heroes could create a "legion" of heroes, ensuring that "the brutalizing aspects and effects of war will be played down," or that "we blind ourselves to evidence of destructive, sometimes atrocious, behavior."

Astore cites atrocities that may have been committed in Gardez, Afghanistan, and claims that such atrocities "produce cognitive dissonance in the minds of many Americans, who simply can't imagine their 'heroes' killing innocents and then covering up the evidence. How much easier it is to see the acts of violence of our troops as necessary, admirable, even noble."

I consider this an affront to Americans' intelligence and, worse, our moral compass.

Yes, there are those very few bad actors in the military who would rape, murder or commit other atrocities. But — believe me — calling the other 99.9% of our troops heroes will definitely not produce "cognitive dissonance" in the minds of Americans, nor will it result in Americans calling acts of violence of our troops "necessary, admirable, even noble."

Even more troubling is Astore's reference of Germans' overuse during World War I of the term "helden" (heroes) to, as he puts it, "ennoble German militarism." I know Hitler and his ilk also called the Nazi troops during World War II, including those involved in the Holocaust, helden.

So what? What does that have to do with American troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, unless one wants to compare those wars, as much as one may disagree with them, to the Nazi atrocities?

I totally oppose the Iraq war. I have written frequently about my opposition. Still, I call those men and women fighting that war heroes, and I will continue to do so.

Astore writes that "in rejecting blanket 'hero' labels today, we would not be insulting our troops." He's right, but only because our troops "collectively" cannot be insulted, just as calling them heroes does not cheapen true acts of heroism, nor does it justify, humanize or glorify war. Governments and politicians who take us into war might justify and glorify wars, but not the troops who fight and die in them.

Let me conclude with a hypothetical question. Given the choice of collectively calling our troops heroes, because of those few "real heroes," and collectively calling our troops murderers and criminals because of those few bad apples, which one would you go for?

Believe me, some have actually opted for the latter choice. So forgive me if I continue to opt for the first choice at the risk of erring — technically, logically and semantically — on the side of our troops.

I thank Astore for his service. In my eyes, he is a hero too.

Dorian de Wind is a retired U.S. Air Force major.

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