Saturday, July 18, 2015

A hero

Donald Trump is wasting no time making more controversial statements.  This time he is in a battle with Senator John McCain surrounding the term 'war hero'.  Many think that McCain is a war hero, and there is no doubt of his credentials - he was shot down over Vietnam and spent five years as a POW and suffered injuries that have affected him his whole life.  Trump has said that he doesn't believe McCain is a hero, on the basis that McCain got captured and that shouldn't be grounds for being lauded as a hero.  "I like people that weren't captured." says Trump.

Trump is a buffoon but the raging debate that this has created brings up an interesting point.  What are the grounds for being a hero anyway?  There is a lot of sentiment in the GOP that anyone who serves in the military is a hero, or perhaps that anyone who actively serves in a combat role is a hero.  This is a huge problem for Trump who is a big military booster and you don't get the votes of soldiers and the people close to them by telling them they are losing their hero status!  However much that may be the Republican norm though, I definitely don't get behind the idea that we should venerate anyone who fights, as it depends very much on who they fought and why.  Glorifying all parts of the military machine is not a standard I can get behind because war should be seen as a grim necessity, not a factory for producing heroes.

It is possible to be heroic when in a war, but being in a war does not make a person a hero.

So a hero isn't just someone who fights.  Someone who fights for the right goals and reasons?  Maybe.  Or is it to do with the suffering they endure?  A member of the Navy who steers a ship near to a war zone and then steers it home again seems more like a normal worker than a hero, especially compared to someone who actually has to hear bullets zipping past their head, deal with injuries, watching comrades die in front of them, and potentially cope with capture and torture as McCain did.

The first thing Google gives me when I type in 'hero' is this:  "A person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities."

You can't really make the claim that being captured or injured is a noble quality or an achievement.  However, there is no question that McCain in particular showed tremendous courage during his incarceration, so by that standard the term war hero seems appropriate.

Whether or not Trump and McCain agree on McCain's claim to the war hero title is itself immaterial.  The deeper concern, and the one which the people covering the story will almost universally ignore, is why we are so eager as a society to laud people for being part of war without any concern as to the actions they took during that war.


  1. First thought - because people are grateful to soldiers for doing a job they really, really don't want to do themselves, and calling them heroes is an easy (low cost) way to show that appreciation.

    But then garbage men could be heroes, but they don't risk their life. This would be why police/firemen are often referred to as heroes. Risk your life routinely (or even marginally, if we're being honest, but with a small chance of it happening) and you get extra credit.

    Maybe you drove a ship there and back, or maybe it was the one in a hundred ships that got sunk, or blown up while at dock in foreign lands, or whatever.

  2. Why aren't coal miners considered heroes in that case?

  3. I am with Nick on this one. There are lots of extremely dangerous professions that are really hard and we don't call those people heroes. Fishermen/women, sex workers, and drug dealers live extremely dangerous lives. We lionize soldiers not because their job is risky, but because we glorify war and combat.

  4. I think more generally, though, we evaluate risk poorly. Firefighter, police officers and soldiers may not have more dangerous jobs than coal miners (depending on where they are working) but they run towards danger while the rest of us run away from it.

    I'm not disagreeing that it's a statement of societal value that we call these people heroes, but I think the logical thread is that we venerate "bravery." Individuals are called heroes when they do the same, walk towards a situation that we would walk away from.

    I bet individual soldiers actually exhibit bravery frequently. Firefighters even moreso. But I agree that fundamentally we have a problem with "soldiers are brave" therefore "war is good" thinking. It seems really hard for people to think something like, "Well, individuals who show bravery in the face of danger are laudible, but situations where individuals *have* to show bravery in order to avoid death or catastrophe should always been avoided."

    Anyway, most of the time "hero" is cheap talk directed at exploited young people who can't even avail themselves of anti-slavery laws to quit their jobs - jobs that leave an awful lot of people traumatized and mentally ill even if they aren't as dangerous as crab fishing.

  5. Allow me to clarify. People are grateful for others doing risky jobs that someone must do. Society as we know it doesn't function well without police or soldiers. It functions okay without taxi drivers (at one point, one of the riskiest professions).

    Also, people view risk badly. It's dangerous to get into a car and drive somewhere, but people do it and view accidents as the price you pay for the convenience. Mining may be more dangerous than soldiering, but mining accidents are due to "accidents" while soldiers die because "someone is trying to kill them".

    So maybe the short summary is: "If part of your job is to be ready in case someone tries to kill you then you get more hero points".

    Security and prison guards get the shaft. The world isn't entirely logical.

  6. If you took the money we currently pay to the military and police and just gave it wholesale to the poor (or to everyone) society would actually function a lot better than it does now.

  7. Transitioning away from police would be very painful, but as for soldiers, I strongly doubt they are more important to our well being than taxi drivers.