Calling the troops ‘heroes’ is a lie that puts them — and democracy — in danger

Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman Jr. on Tarawa

Lieutenant Alexander Bonnyman Jr. on Tarawa in 1943

Clay Bonnyman Evans

This essay is adapted from a chapter in a book (not yet available) about Lt. Bonnyman and Tarawa, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Despite an overwhelming post-9/11 cultural consensus, serving in the military does not automatically make anyone a hero. That’s just an empty, self-regarding myth Americans tell themselves to soothe a guilty conscience.

But it’s not just a little white lie, a cost-free gesture of respect and admiration. It’s a dangerous Orwellian falsehood that leads inevitably to more troops coming home in body bags and threatens the very foundations of democracy.

I have not served in the military. But over the past four years I’ve interviewed dozens of active-duty troops and veterans while researching a book about my grandfather, Marine 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr., who was awarded the Medal of Honor after he was killed in the Battle of Tarawa on Nov. 22, 1943. And not a single one agrees with the fiction that all who serve are “heroes,” or knows a comrade in arms who does.

But first, let me tell you a little about my grandfather.  A man of remarkable virtues, intriguing flaws and complex motivations, he would have dismissed the anodyne saint he became in legend and the idea that he was a “hero.” Atop that bunker on far away Tarawa, he saw himself simply as a Marine with a job to do, like any other. It was not an opportunity for glory or heroism. It was a responsibility. He would have rejected fawning heroization not just because it’s absurd and dishonest, but because it’s dangerous — to the troops, to every American and to the ideals he fought and died for.

Bonnyman led the assault on this Japanese bunker at Tarawa.  The arrow may (or may not) point to him

Bonnyman led the assault on this Japanese bunker at Tarawa. The arrow may point to him

Many of today’s veterans feel the same.  “A lot of the American public throws ‘hero’ around to show they ‘support the troops’ and as a guaranteed applause line at game or event,” says Army Capt. Don Gomez, Jr., who served two tours in Iraq as an infantryman with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne and recently redeployed to the Middle East. “Most members of the military understand that the word is now used so frequently that it stands to lose its meaning altogether.”[i]

Far from feeling appreciated, many of the troops are insulted by such a transparently self-serving gesture.

“Calling us heroes is like, ‘Hey, we did our part today. We put the bumper sticker on the car and said support the troops,’” Marine veteran Dan Sidles, who served two tours in Iraq, told me. “Last time I heard the Marine Corps and the Army are hiring.”[ii]

“Heroization” is an unprecedented idea, even for a martial nation that spends almost twice as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. Encouraged by politicians and generals, the idea was embraced almost universally by citizens not just traumatized by Sept. 11, but also still haunted by the treatment of soldiers returning from Vietnam. It represents the rhetorical crest of a wave of unquestioned, sentimental valorization of all things military, from “Support Our Troops” ribbons adorning Hummers and Priuses alike, to millionaire athletes donning camo and spouting rote praise for the troops, to the overthrow of the cheery “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for Lee Greenwood’s treacly, grammatically challenged, “I’m Proud to Be an American” during baseball’s seventh-inning stretch.

The impulse is not limited to conservative or military communities. During the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, even media in the most liberal of enclaves — Boulder, Madison, Santa Cruz — published fawning profiles of local troops in a frantic quest for populist cred, while schools and local governments could seem almost giddy at the prospect of memorializing a graduate or resident killed in battle, a sort of cost-free “sacrifice” by proxy. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin even seemed to think she should be immune to political criticism because, “I raised a combat vet.”[iii]

Veterans and soldiers are frankly ambivalent about all the adulation. An April 2014 Kaiser-Washington Post poll found that while 70 percent of Iraq-Afghanistan war vets “feel good” when they see a yellow ribbon, 42 percent also suspect the public is “just saying what people want to hear.”[iv]

But they hold no such ambiguities about heroization.

As Wes Stowers, who flew F-4s in Vietnam, told me, “Calling everyone a hero tarnishes the people who truly earned it, like your grandfather.”[v]

Gomez says virtually all the troops and vets who responded to his 2011 New York Times blog post, “When Hero Rings Hollow,” were grateful someone had had the courage to say it aloud. The lone quibble came from a soldier who observed that after Vietnam, “it’s better to have the American public call us heroes than to start discriminating.”[vi]

But the choice is not between “heroes” and “baby killers.” The troops themselves will tell you there are as many idiots, reprobates, liars and cowards in the ranks as geniuses, truth tellers and good guys. And in truth, everyone’s got assets and defects. That’s no insult; that’s human nature.

Not everyone sees it that way. In a 2010 Los Angeles Times op-ed, retired Air Force Maj. Dorian de Wind wrote that he “instinctively and invariably refers to (those in the military) as heroes … out of general, across-the-board respect and admiration for them, and out of deep gratitude for the sacrifices they make for our country. (R)eal heroes will still be singled out and honored with the appropriate military awards and decorations reserved for … acts of valor and heroism.”[vii]

But Orwell was right — “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”[viii] And as Vietnam veteran and former Green Beret William Hathaway told me, “If you call anyone who dons the uniform is a hero, then no one is a hero.”[ix]

It wasn’t always this way. Before the advent of the all-volunteer military in 1973, nobody mistook soldiers as anything other than mortal.

“The rotation of citizen-soldiers through the ranks and the leavening presence of veterans throughout American society obviated the need for myths, indeed, made it all but impossible to idealize war or military service,” writes retired U.S. Army colonel and Boston University professor of political science Andrew Bacevich, a self-described conservative Catholic whose son was killed in Iraq in 2007.[x]

Today, a paltry half-percent of Americans serve in the military. The last veteran president, George H.W. Bush, left office in 1993, and just 20 percent of members of Congress are veterans, down from 70 percent in 1975.[xi] And with little exposure to real soldiers, Americans have embraced a myth.

The pendulum veered too far the other way as Americans struggling with the moral ambiguities of Vietnam sometimes conflated a dubious war driven by politicians and fanned by generals with those who fought it (though in truth, just as many made common cause with veterans).

But that didn’t last long. Ronald Reagan came into office in 1980 promising to kick this “Vietnam syndrome,” and in the process subtly shifted the relationship between citizens and the military.

“With Reagan, support for the troops replaced service with the troops as the standard for civic responsibility,” says James Carroll, author of the National Book Award-winning, “An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us.” “To anyone making that choice (to serve) Reagan granted the status of patriot, idealist and hero. Of citizens he asked only that they affirm that designation.”[xii]

Respect grew with the lightning-quick military (if not political) success of the TV-friendly, relatively bloodless 1990 Gulf War. Then came 9/11, and millions of Americans took refuge, pride and comfort in the idea that self-sacrificing warriors had stepped forth to protect them.

But a 2006 Pentagon poll found that just 38.1 percent of Iraq/Afghanistan-era recruits cited “service to country” as their primary motivation (and the analysts noted that recruits often exaggerate their idealism).[xiii] Another 20.2 percent cited skills acquisition, 16.4 percent were in search of “adventure” and smaller percentages named benefits such as health care, early retirement, education, job security and travel. Other surveys have found that family tradition or a desire to flee a dead-end hometown influence many volunteers. Some join up as an alternative to incarceration.

“Some people enlist because they genuinely want to serve their country. Others just do it for the money and benefits. Let’s be honest about this. Anyone who joins the military for what they can get out of it is just a mercenary by degrees,” Travis Haan, who served seven years in the Air Force.[xiv]

Americans routinely praise the troops for “fighting for our freedoms,” protecting the vulnerable and other lofty moral missions. Military PR campaigns happily trade on such sentiments, offering slick recruitment ads showing Marines, helicopters and tanks thundering “toward the sounds of tyranny, injustice and despair” and declaring the Navy “A Global Force for Good.”

But as former Army Specialist and Iraq veteran David Mann says, “I wasn’t fighting for ‘freedom.’ We already had that.”[xv] And as blogger Justin Doolittle notes, the disturbing corollary to the alleged connection between the military and freedom “is that the same military can revoke said freedom if it so desires.”[xvi]

Many people who sit in cubicles 40 hours a week instinctively feel that the inherent risk in joining the military makes all troops heroes. But there are many dangerous non-military professions — roofing, commercial fishing, truck driving. And in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 40 percent of American troops did not deploy to a combat zone, while in-theater 12 personnel supported each combat soldier. That translates to less than 5 percent overall seeing combat.[xvii]

Reporter Ann Jones, who was embedded on the Afghan-Pakistan border in 2010, infuriated civilian readers when she reported that the most common disabling injury on her base was a sprained ankle. “How dare I say such a thing? It demeaned our nation’s great Warriors. It was an insult to all patriotic Americans. I learned a lesson from that. America’s soldiers, when deployed, may no longer be ‘real people’ even to their loved ones. To girlfriends and wives, left alone at home with bills to pay and kids to raise, they evidently had to be mythic Warriors of historic importance saving the nation even at the sacrifice of their own lives. Otherwise, what was the point?”[xviii]

While certainly a sacrifice, even being killed or wounded doesn’t punch anyone’s ticket to herohood. As Edward W. Wood, Jr., 90, wounded in the Allied invasion of France, told me, “The idea that everyone who comes home in a casket is a hero? That’s total bullshit.”[xix]

Author William Pfaff describes the “artifice” and “complicated moral stance” of heroism as a blend of virtues, “moral courage, staunchness, idealism, fraternity, love of fellows,” and less flattering attributes, “recklessness, nihilism, morbidity, a suicidal will, simple stupidity, or insensibility before danger (that) triumphs over the powerful natural impulses of fear and the urge to survive.”[xx]

The adoring public, egged on by military PR campaigns, prefers to scrub its heroes of any complexity.  But that’s just another kind of lie. Scrubbing away human texture is no less false or dehumanizing than damning all soldiers as automatons and killers. As Iraq war vet and author Phil Klay observes, “We are no more or less trustworthy than any other group of fallible human beings.”[xxi]

And some are capable of truly monstrous crimes. My Lai, widely regarded as a shameful anomaly, was just one of myriad massacres reflecting official U.S. policy in Vietnam, according to the Pentagon’s own War Crimes Working Group.[xxii] Even in the “good war,” U.S. troops pushing into Germany in 1945 raped, robbed, slaughtered livestock for sport and torched civilian homes. “We are a devastation,” U.S. Army Sgt. Raymond Gantter boasted. “Where we have passed, little remains — no camera, no pistols, very little jewelry, and damn few virgins.”[xxiii] In the Pacific, Americans met Japanese savagery with their own; as my grandfather’s friend, the late 1st Lt. Paul Govedare, told his son, “We weren’t gentle. And we never took prisoners.”[xxiv]

The point is not to demean the whole based on the brutalities of the few, but to recognize the blind absurdity of blessing them all as heroes. As Hemingway wrote, “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”[xxv]

Heroes don’t “dig bullets out of pregnant women’s bodies in an attempt to cover up deadly mistakes. They don’t fire on a good Samaritan and his two children as he attempts to aid a grievously wounded civilian,” William Astore, an Air Force veteran, writes. “Such atrocities … so common to war’s brutal chaos, produce cognitive dissonance in the minds of many Americans who simply can’t imagine their ‘heroes’ killing innocents. How much easier it is to see the acts of violence of our troops as necessary, admirable, even noble.”[xxvi]

Yet in the age of the ubiquitous military hero, a surprising number of Americans seem prepared to excuse soldiers who commit atrocities because they were “just following orders” or say we should not judge until we have walked a mile in their combat boots. How many would grant such immunity to enemy fighters? Are you a hero if you unintentionally take innocent life? And last I looked, the Nuremberg defense was found both wanting and immoral when it was trotted out by Nazi war criminals.

“If someone orders you to kill someone else and tells you it’s for a very, very good reason and you do it with the best of intentions but it turns out that you were lied to and actually killed an innocent person, then does that make you a hero, a murderer or a victim?” Haan says. “I know it doesn’t make you a hero. I can’t say if it makes you a murderer, but it definitely makes you a victim.”[xxvii]

Sometimes, true heroes are demonized while war criminals are excused, even celebrated. Army Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr. ordered his helicopter gunners to protect Vietnamese civilians from the slaughter ordered by Lt. William Calley at My Lai.  Calley was convicted in the murder of 109 civilians but the public — including then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter — was outraged that such a patriot should serve time and 99 percent of 5,000 letters sent to the White House demanded leniency. President Nixon pardoned him after he served three years of house arrest. Thompson, meanwhile, endured death threats, hate mail, vandalism and demands from Congress that he be court-martialed for years before he was finally recognized as the moral hero he was.

David M. Shoup was awarded the Medal of Honor and celebrated as a hero for his actions at Tarawa (he also pushed for my grandfather to receive the same honor) and later became Commandant of the Marine Corps. Yet when he began criticizing the Vietnam War he was called a traitor and mentally unfit; his friends abandoned him and President Johnson ordered the FBI to monitor his activities.

General Shoup, awarded the Medal of Honor and an outspoken critic of America's war in Viet Nam

General Shoup, awarded the Medal of Honor and an outspoken critic of America’s war in Viet Nam

“Real heroism entails moral courage,” says former war correspondent Chris Hedges. “But the way people use ‘hero’ now is about glorification of the military as the highest ‘moral’ good.”[xxviii]

I’ve learned that to publicly question heroization is to invite Facebook flaming, outrage and even threats from civilians, including many self-proclaimed “anti-war” liberals. But never, in my experience, from the military.

“All the hero stuff is more of a civilian phenomenon,” says Army Capt. Gary Stump, who served two tours in Iraq.[xxix]

It’s all about guilt among the 99 percent of Americans who won’t ever serve in the military, who make no sacrifices at all now that pandering politicians pay for their trillion-dollar wars with Chinese credit. Meanwhile we, the people lustily embrace those same politicians’ noble-sounding reasons and lies, reflexively cheering every new military venture — 72 percent approved the misguided invasion of Iraq — to be fought by other people’s sons and daughters. Then we cheer again when they — the live ones, anyway — come home.

Of course, cheering and hero worship do nothing for actual veterans who return home wounded, battling addictions or mental-health issues or just looking for a decent job. “The truth of war is that it’s always about loving the guy next to you,” Iraq war veteran Tausolo Aieti told author David Finkel. “The truth of the ‘after’ war is that you are on your own.”[xxx]

And here’s an embarrassing little secret many American men of a certain age won’t tell you: When we were growing up — late ‘70s, ‘80s, even ‘90s — we, like Dick Cheney, “had other priorities.”

“A lot of the men who are the loudest in supporting war tend to be the ones who are perfectly capable of serving but don’t,” Stump notes with disgust.[xxxi]

But now, having seen the respect accorded 21st-century soldiers, many of us feel a nagging inadequacy: Did I lose my only shot at proving my manhood, my worthiness, to my father, to women, to myself? As Col. Nathan R. Jessup barks in “A Few Good Men,” “We live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?” Ouch.

Maybe that explains why 50-year-old men spend hours playing soldier — zoned out on first-person shooter military video games, firing paintballs at each other, dressing in camo, or in a few cringe-worthy — though legal, the Supreme Court has found — cases, claiming service they didn’t do and wearing medals they didn’t earn.

Combat is no video game. But it’s a vivid experience, simultaneously entrancing, terrifying and degrading. In “the temple of Mars” that is war, Vietnam veteran and Navy Cross recipient Karl Marlantes “experienced transcendence and, momentarily, ecstasy. I also experienced flawed humanity and raw savagery, my own and that of others, beyond comprehension of most people.”[xxxii]

Men — almost exclusively men — who play-act and yearn for the experience of combat have the luxury of ignorance. As my grandfather’s letters from the Pacific attest, war offers far more boredom, loneliness and discomfort than combat thrills — which are, in any event, more terrifying and chaotic than any armchair warrior can possibly imagine.

San Diego September 1942. Top Row: Capt. Don E. Farkas, Dr. Agar, Lt. Gilbert.  Bottom Row: Lt. Govedare holding Reising SMG and Lt. Bonnyman. Courtesy of the Farkas family

San Diego September 1942. Top Row: Capt. Don E. Farkas, Dr. Agar, Lt. Gilbert. Bottom Row: Lt. Govedare holding Reising SMG and Lt. Bonnyman. Courtesy of the Farkas family; from the site “Tarawa on the Web”

“I don’t think anybody I’ve ever known who has been in harm’s way says it’s anything but an awful fucking mess,” says World War II combat vet Wood.[xxxiii]

All this would just be embarrassing if it weren’t so dangerous. The “heroes and circuses” offered by politicians and lustily embraced by millions are in fact a dangerous political manipulation that should disturb every American.

“The whole ‘heroic’ trope … answers questions before they get asked,” says retired Air Force Lt. Col. Astore. “Is sending more troops to Iraq a good idea? Are they doing the right things there? Of course they are — they’re heroes, and heroes do the right thing by definition. And heroes follow orders without question, just like ordinary Americans should. … The rhetoric of universal heroes enables war and silences dissent. That’s why it’s so dangerous. And so universally pronounced by our so-called leaders.”[xxxiv]

Blind valorization also pushes the gap ever wider between troop-worshipping citizens and a military that increasingly sees itself as separate and superior. According to that 2014 Kaiser-Washington Post poll, for example, 54 percent of the military say they have higher moral and ethical values than other Americans.[xxxv]

“You tend to look at yourself, doing the job you were sent to do, you’re hot, working your balls off. You immediately develop an attitude of condescension toward the guy who doesn’t have guts to do it himself,” says the politically conservative Stump. “A disaffected military, in the Praetorian sense, is a military that can rally behind somebody who comes in a time of great national strain. … That kind of military is more prone to doing things that aren’t so good for liberty overall.”[xxxvi]

Tommy Franks, who enthusiastically supported and led the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq — he considered Saddam Hussein’s alleged “intent to attack” the United States sufficient to justify that costly war — gave a 2003 interview that impressed many as a kind of blackmail. Another “terrorist, massive, casualty-producing event” on the U.S. — or anywhere in the West — Franks declared, would likely cause “our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country.”[xxxvii] His meaning was subtle, but clear: If we don’t give the military free rein to “protect” us as it sees fit, we will have only ourselves to blame when the terrorists strike again and regretfully, there will have to be martial law.

It’s no wonder the Founding Fathers were so deeply distrustful of a standing army. As James Madison wrote, “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”

On the civilian side of the ledger, most Americans are content to let their “heroes” do the heavy lifting. Having grown up with almost perpetual war fought by people they don’t know and will never meet, many Americans under 25 — just .8 percent of whom now serve in the military[xxxviii] — have internalized the disturbing notions that war is the default state of affairs and it’s really none of their concern. Older Americans relish the theater of war; Millennials ignore it; neither pay for it.

Without any “skin in the game,” says Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan — no dove — Americans have become too tolerant of “muddl(ing) about with an ill-defined mission set while contractors get richer, little gets achieved, and soldiers get killed and maimed.”[xxxix]

The answer, say Marlantes and many others, both conservative and liberal, is to take away the political and military plaything the all-volunteer forces have become and institute national service, including non-military options. This is a deeply patriotic, conservative idea that genuinely respects and supports the troops — if not politicians and the Pentagon. Of course, in the current political environment, it’s as likely to happen as replacing the stars on Old Glory with peace signs.

“Some, particularly in the extreme right wing, would consider this slavery to the government,” Marlantes says. “I consider it being a responsible citizen .”[xl]

Alexander Bonnyman Jr. surely would have agreed. After all, he did not have to go to war. He was 32, with a wife, three children and a successful mine that produced copper, a critical wartime resource.  He went anyway because, among other things, he believed it was his duty.

My grandfather gave his life for his country at “bloody Tarawa” and has been admired, celebrated and mythologized as a hero ever since. But I think he would have declined that label. After all, he was just doing his job.

Clay Bonnyman Evans is a journalist and author living in Colorado. He invites you to visit his site, http://www.claybonnymanevans.com. You may reach him at claybonnyman@gmail.com.

[i] Interview, June 16, 2011

[ii] Interview, Oct. 13, 2011

[iii] “Beck, Palin call for restoring honor at rally,” Aug. 28, 2010, USA Today

[iv] Kaiser-Washington Post survey, April 2, 2014

[v] Interview, Aug. 6, 2011

[vi] ibid

[vii] “Why U.S. troops deserve to be called heroes,” Los Angeles Times, July 27, 2010

[viii] “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell

[ix] Interview, Dec. 9, 2010

[x] “The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War” by Andrew Bacevich

[xi] CNN, January 2011

[xii] Interview, Nov. 21, 2010

[xiii] “The Volunteer Army: Who Fights and Why,” New York Times Magazine, April 3, 2008

[xiv] Interview, Travis Haan, Aug. 1, 2014

[xv] Panel discussion in Boulder, Colo., August 2007

[xvi] “Stop thanking the troops for me: No, they don’t ‘protect our freedoms’!” by Justin Doolittle, Salon.com, Nov. 11, 2013

[xvii] ‘Combat Deployments: Unbalanced Burden,” TIME magazine, March 16, 2012

[xviii] “Ann Jones, Silent Soldiers, The Losers from our Lost Wars” by Ann Jones, TomDispatch.com, Nov. 7, 2013

[xix] Interview, June 15, 2011

[xx] “The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia” by William Pfaff, p. 25. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

[xxi] “After War a Failure of the Imagination,” New York Times, Feb. 8, 2014

[xxii] “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam” by Nick Turse, 2013

[xxiii] “Roll Me Over: An Infantryman’s World War II” by Raymond Gantter

[xxiv] Interview, Paul Govedare, Jr. 2012

[xxv] “Hemingway on War,” edited by Sean Hemingway, Scribner, 2004

[xxvi] “Is every soldier a hero? Hardly,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2010

[xxvii] Interview, Travis Haan, Aug. 1, 2014

[xxviii] Interview, Dec. 23, 2010

[xxix] Interview, Dec. 11, 2011

[xxx] “Thank You for Your Service” by David Finkel, Sarah Crichton Books, 2013

[xxxi] Interview, Dec. 11, 2011

[xxxii] “What It Is Like to Go to War” by Karl Marlantes, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011

[xxxiii] Interview, March 17, 2012

[xxxiv] Email, July 6, 2014

[xxxv] Kaiser-Washington Post survey, April 2, 2014

[xxxvi] Interview, Dec. 11, 2011

[xxxvii] Interview, Cigar Aficionado, December 2003

[xxxviii] National Survey of Veterans, Department of Veteran Affairs, 2000

[xxxix] Review of “Breach of Trust” by Andrew Bacevich by Phil Klay, The Daily Beast, Sept. 16, 2013

[xl] Interview, Oct. 5, 2011

39 thoughts on “Calling the troops ‘heroes’ is a lie that puts them — and democracy — in danger

  1. Nice piece. I make the same case in my classes and public lectures all the time. When does your book come out? I might be interested in assigning it.

    Cheers, Nate Matlock, Regis University Center for the Study of War Experience

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  3. Well done! I am looking forward to reading your book. I don’t know if you know my Dad or not, but he would agree with everything you said. My brother is Steve Gray.

  4. Thank you for this contribution. Surely the first posted here to cite an interview in Cigar Aficionado Magazine!! I am a member of that tiniest of minorities in this society who is nauseated and outraged every time the local TV “news” salutes the return of a group of National Guardsmen from a tour overseas as “heroes.” The mainstream media have so totally, willingly gone to bed with the military (“embedded,” indeed!) that we have no hope of turning the tide against them in the name of reason, “true patriotism” or any other cause. The ideas that dominate society are those propagated to benefit the ruling elite. The only freedom the US military has fought for in my lifetime is the freedom of corporate entities to exploit the resources of other peoples. This is the entire raison d’etre of the hideously bloated military establishment. The US has not had to defend its national territory since the War of 1812. “What about Pearl Harbor? What about 9/11?” you shout in outrage. (That’s the “editorial ‘you,'” of course.) Hawaii was colonized by Americans–something I understand a good chunk of the indigenous population there is not thrilled about to this day–and still a “territory,” not a state, in 1941. The events of 9/11, a date on which US continental air defenses seemed to have been conveniently asleep at the switch (i.e. they failed to defend us!), we are told were perpetrated by agents of a stateless terrorist organization, not another nation. Not that that reality saved the peoples of Iraq or Afghanistan from US assaults continuing to this day.

    By the way, during my time in the Army (1967-1971) I never drew so much as a hostile glance from a civilian while in public transit in uniform. Nor did I ever hear from fellow soldiers of any such incident. Were troops really greeted at airports by hostile hippies, spitting and screaming “Baby killers!!”? Perhaps once, maybe twice, I would guess. This became a myth of which rightwingers were the joyful spreaders. It even became a twisted joke within the military, with troops referring to one another by that epithet. If the American public, which on the whole does cheer like a collective automaton whenever US bombs and missiles start landing on foreign soil, believes this myth it is just another marker of its (convenient to the ruling elite!) abysmal ignorance. This is the tide against which those of us with contrarian views must swim. I, for one, will never surrender. I would sooner drown in the effort.

    • I guess i was present for one of those few times when we got spat on and called baby killers when I mustered out at Oakland in 1967. I was suprised because I didn’t know about the growing backlash, but it didn’t bother me because I agreed.m

  5. Clay, I feel honored to know you after reading this. Always knew you were an ink stained wretch of the old school and a good guy to go to class with; and have admired many things you brought up publicly, as well as you style of bringing them. This writing is your talent taken to a whole new level. I see that you mention the Praetorians, and the dichotomy between and all volunteer army and the days of true citizen soldiers. I expect, being the thorough researcher that you are, you will draw the Roman parallel: when the citizens of the Republic stopped going to war and hired mercenary armies the handwriting was on the wall; the Republic transmuted into Empire and the end of days for Pax Romana. I kind of don’t like the term volunteer army; I think mercenary army is closer to the mark. Sadly I don’t think the hated draft will ever return. I greatly fear there will come a time when a charismatic leader with an armed force equivalent to Julius Caesar’s 12th Legion will use the Potomac for the Rubicon. And a nation that has grown up without exposure personally to the mutter and fog of war will knuckle under. I really disliked my draft time; they turned a reporter into a damn cop. It ruined my natural ability to spot speed traps; couldn’t smell lurking cops anymore. Those who maintained that being drafted involuntarily was training for servitude aren’t far off the mark. After I used Congressional influence to put away my MP pistols and become a PR guy, I well remember shooting photos at the officer’s club and being told I was welcome to a meal–as long as I didn’t eat in the eyesight of officers and their ladies. The black female cook tried to lead me back to the kitchen to eat with her but I said no damn way. At least I could refuse their “hospitality” as an honorary nigger. The Army sure ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and the assholes run rampant–which is why we need draftees, in unwilling servitude, to keep an eye on them.

  6. @Robyn Gray Steve is a great guy and a great neighbor. You should ask him sometime about the circumstances leading to our first (non-Facebook) meeting.

    @Nate Matlock. The book is still in draft, but I’ve got readers — including some publishers I know — lined up for September. It’s about many things, and in fact this piece is something of a coda. It follows directly from a thread throughout the book, but the first 240+ pages are about me giving my grandfather his full, real life back, as opposed to the false portrait of his legend, the effort to locate the “lost Marines of Tarawa,” my involvement with those efforts, my perspectives on Tarawa – one of the poorest places on earth – and travels there, the politics of medals and … oh my!

    @ greglaxer Have you read Jerry Lembcke’s “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam”? An excellent book that actually goes to the historical record in search of the roots of that myth.

    Clay Bonnyman Evans
    claybonnyman@gmail.com

    • CBE–I was aware the book you mention existed but have not pursued it. I’m close to wrapping up my own memoir on my resistance to Vietnam War from within the Army. I kind of doubt Lembcke’s book is essential to me, though it may be quite interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • @Clay Bonnyman Evans… Like Greg Laxer, no “hippies” ever spit on me when I travelled in my uniform during the American War on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The real animus that we servicemen experienced at that time came from reactionary war enthusiasts who called us “losers.” As I’ve mentioned in this forum previously, the biggest spitball I remember came from General Chuck Yeager, the famed Air Force test pilot who said of us: “Those boys in Vietnam just had something missing in their character.” I once had a job interview where the prospective employer told me: “My bother hired a Vietnam veteran once, but the guy was a drug addict, so things didn’t work out.” Needless so say, I didn’t get the job.

      Less than one half of one percent of the American population serves in the military now, whatever they may say about how “heroic” they find such service. My oldest son — who will turn 40 this year — served six years in the Marine Corps Reserves, mostly in the hopes of getting a little financial help paying for a college education. Fortunately, he got out just before the U.S. government started shipping the reserves to active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says that he used to list his limited military service on his resume when looking for work. Today, he no longer does so. “People just think that service in the military makes you sound stupid,” he says.

      My mother used to tell me that when she met my dad in Norfolk, Virginia during World War II, the good citizens of that town had signs on their lawns that read: “Dogs and sailors, keep off the grass.” The occasional serviceman or woman can seem identifiable with America’s transparently hypocritical Military Idolatry, as I like to call it, but get more than a few bus loads of them together in their drab working uniforms and they turn into a grim reminder of poverty that awaits those American “losers” increasingly caught in its relentless undertow. So, actually, I don’t think that the real attitudes of civilians toward military servicemen have changed much, if at all, for much of human history, and certainly not in my lifetime.

  7. @williamrburkettjr Bill, your endorsement means a hell of a lot to me. In the chapter version of this—which will, no doubt, continue to change—I have a quote from Army Capt. Gary Stump (quoted here) specifically referring to the Praetorian history. I share your view on the Roman parallel.

  8. @Michael Murry Thanks so much for the kind words. Your experience is invaluable and I share the views you express here. I think, at its heart, this essay is a glimpse into the curious and often disturbing way we make myths and legends. You, too, might find Lembcke’s “The Spitting Image” of interest. It’s real journalism/research based on contemporary documents and media that does a great job of undermining the powerful myth of the spat-upon (to use an overarching term) Vietnam veteran.

    Clay Bonnyman Evans

  9. The blanket use of “hero” is attributable in part to guilt (or, if not guilt, a sense of unease) at sending others into harm’s way while refusing oneself to serve. By way of compensation, many people think “it’s the least we can do — call our troops ‘heroes'” — and they’re right. It’s really the least they can do — and they do no more.

    Along with elevating all our troops as heroes, there’s also a tendency to see them as macho men and warriors. This is perhaps a reaction against “metro-sexuals” and the perception that American society is being feminized. Thus military service is glorified as a setting for the creation of real men, with “real” measured by the capacity to do violence to others.

    There’s an uneasy tension here. Our troops are heroes — OK — but they’re also warriors capable of shocking and murderous violence — OK.

    Some who thoughtlessly admire the troops often do so as a way to celebrate the violence of war. A pornography of violence is embraced by those who are otherwise emasculated and powerless within American society.

    Thus the troops are “heroes” not only for their nobility and service, but because they’re able and willing to kill.

    This element of hero worship — a vicarious celebration of murderous violence in the name of protecting our “tribe” — taps primal roots and fears and isn’t acknowledged enough, I think.

    • I’d add, Clay, that it’s a case of patting ourselves on the back. Our families, our villages, our towns, our cities, our nation, produce heroes. Other countries — not so much. And because the USA produces heroes, we are truly exceptional. And if I’m an American, I’m exceptional too. Perhaps I’m not a hero myself, but I come from a nation of heroes. And I can take pride in that.

      Very potent psychology there.

  10. http://www.salon.com/2012/07/10/no_america_doesnt_need_a_national_service/

    Calls for “the draft” or “National Service” seem to crop up every so often on the internet, strangely on progressive/liberal outlets, as I found this article originally on Truth-Out. The article above I think does a good job showing how either mandatory military service or national service are not good ideas, and this conservative nostalgia for conscription is misplaced at best. But maybe I take this personally since I’m of the age these conceptual plans would conscript.

    • @Ezra I very much appreciate your comment. In all honesty, I am a hypocrite—at your age, I was vehemently opposed to the idea of a renewed draft and openly protested (mostly as a high-school journalist) President Carter’s reinstatement of Selective Service registration. Were I in your shoes today, I suspect I’d feel the same way.

      The idea of a national service requirement is not completely unworkable. Nations such as Denmark, Germany, Israel and Norway (among others) actually require military service. National service would be broader, for the reasons Marlantes notes.

      It’s only one idea, of course, but I have not yet heard anything better. I’ve been asking people for their thoughts.

      But do not underestimate the dangers I outline—or rather, that the military personnel and vets I quote outline—in the essay. And while I do understand that national service would impinge on the personal freedom of young Americans, I have to think the establishment of some kind of military regime would be worse. And never mind the enormous costs of maintaining a massive military, which will very much affect your future.

      But I applaud you for pondering the question and again, feel free to call me a hypocrite, for I cannot dispute the charge.

      Clay Bonnyman Evans

      • @greglaxer

        “National Service” would be a problem if its stated objective and goal wouldn’t be met, which I’m not exactly sure it would be to you personally. I think the article from Michael Lind makes the case against the most common reasons given for such a system. Also, we’ve never just had a military to defend just ourselves, after all this is a nation built on conquest and expansion, no? The draft didn’t prevent that. At the moment I’d say it’s naive to expect otherwise, not without some massive social and economic structural changes.

        Besides, why wouldn’t it be morally objectionable to force people to put on a uniform, salute and train and get ready to kill, in any case? Honest question, I want to know what you think.

      • @Ezra As Marlantes points out, and I paraphrase, it *is* morally objectionable to require someone to put on the uniform. That’s why true national service, with non-military options (and indeed, the military wouldn’t know what to do with that many conscripts), is what he suggests.

        True enough that having a draft didn’t stop the United States from adventuring overseas. What it did do, arguably, was give Americans enough stake in the Vietnam war that they actually cared and eventually spoke out in opposition. One of the dangers of our current system, as I write, is that 99.5% of Americans don’t serve, and not many more have any kind of stake in our wars, so what the heck? Let’s cheer the boys and call ’em heroes!

        I think you are right that massive societal and economic changes would seem to be a prerequisite. But it’s worth discussing.

        I truly think the historical comparison to Scipio, Rome and the Praetorian guards is apt … and scary.

        Clay Bonnyman Evans

      • Ezra–The key sentence in my comment on “national service” was that I could only support it if we lived in a society very different from present reality, i.e. one that did not gin up wars of aggression abroad. Please note also that I did not advocate military being the only option for fulfilling the service requirement in such a hypothetical situation. If such a system was to be legitimate, no one, and I mean NO ONE (except the physically or mentally disabled), would be granted exemption. That means the priest, the rabbi, the bankster’s son or daughter, etc. would be serving the nation. Israel has traditionally only exempted the ultra-Orthodox from military service, by the way, but I understand there’s discussion of scrapping that arrangement.

      • @claywise Thanks for the response :)

        If you call yourself a hypocrite, can I ask how you can intellectually support this position then? I’m not trying to even challenge you, just wondering why this is the case? Why be for something you’d never do?

        “The idea of a national service requirement is not completely unworkable. Nations such as Denmark, Germany, Israel and Norway (among others) actually require military service. National service would be broader, for the reasons Marlantes notes.”

        Yes and no. Germany no longer has “National Service” (which wasn’t just military, males had to choose between military or civil), Norway has it only on paper for both genders but in practice it’s practically voluntary, not so sure about Denmark and I hardly think Israel is a system we should emulate, if we want to enhance democracy and limit militarism anyway. How would mandatory military or national service even work in this day and age in the country? Shouldn’t we be working to limit the military’s presence and cut defense spending?

        “It’s only one idea, of course, but I have not yet heard anything better. I’ve been asking people for their thoughts.”

        Not to be simplistic, cut defense spending and shrink the military?

        “But do not underestimate the dangers I outline—or rather, that the military personnel and vets I quote outline—in the essay. And while I do understand that national service would impinge on the personal freedom of young Americans, I have to think the establishment of some kind of military regime would be worse. And never mind the enormous costs of maintaining a massive military, which will very much affect your future.”

        I’m not really sure what you mean by a military regime? Do you think a military coup d’etat is imminent? I’m not exactly sure how that’s the case, when it’s not like the military is separate from the current government and its wishes, not only that, how would expanding the military via a draft prevent this?

        “But I applaud you for pondering the question and again, feel free to call me a hypocrite, for I cannot dispute the charge.”

        I’m not going to call you a hypocrite, I’m just curious how and why such a thing should be done, especially when your complaint is the military is too big?

        Look forward to your response.

      • Forgot to add, in case you think I’m some anti-military hippy, my family has a military tradition. My grandfather was drafted and fought in Korea, and wasn’t against it even though he was drafted, so I’m not so sure a draft automatically creates anti-war feelings. Some food for thought.

    • Ezra–I don’t think the concept of compulsory “national service” is a problem, in and of itself. If the United States used its military only to actually defend itself, or as part of a genuine humanitarian rescue effort of civilians somewhere as part of a multi-national operation, I would find it difficult to object. But then we’d all be living in a vastly different society than what we have now, eh?

      GREG LAXER
      US Army, 1967-71

      • @greglaxer It seems this comment was accidentally posted in response to another reason, so I’m reposting it here. Sorry about that.

        “National Service” would be a problem if its stated objective and goal wouldn’t be met, which I’m not exactly sure it would be to you personally. I think the article from Michael Lind makes the case against the most common reasons given for such a system. Also, we’ve never just had a military to defend just ourselves, after all this is a nation built on conquest and expansion, no? The draft didn’t prevent that. At the moment I’d say it’s naive to expect otherwise, not without some massive social and economic structural changes.

        Besides, why wouldn’t it be morally objectionable to force people to put on a uniform, salute and train and get ready to kill, in any case? Honest question, I want to know what you think.

      • @greglaxer Thanks for your response

        “Ezra–The key sentence in my comment on “national service” was that I could only support it if we lived in a society very different from present reality, i.e. one that did not gin up wars of aggression abroad.”

        Okay, but what would be the point then, if we didn’t go into wars like crazy? This post is trying to claim, or at least authors it cites are, that “National Service” would prevent such wars, so why would you be for such a system, if eliminating that factor is a prerequisite to ever being in favor of such a system? Why be for such a system regardless? What benefits would it have?

        “Please note also that I did not advocate military being the only option for fulfilling the service requirement in such a hypothetical situation.”

        Again, what would be the point then? Would people just be cleaning roads and taking care of elderly people? Why would we undercut paid jobs by making young conscripts do this? Seems kind of counterproductive, but I could be wrong. I’m not really sure what you mean here.

        ” That means the priest, the rabbi, the bankster’s son or daughter, etc. would be serving the nation. Israel has traditionally only exempted the ultra-Orthodox from military service, by the way, but I understand there’s discussion of scrapping that arrangement.”

        And Israel is a country that goes to war at the drop of a dime. They just got finished massacring a bunch of largely defenseless people. Since this post is about how we prevent such wars, I don’t think Israel makes a good case.

      • Ezra–You appear desirous of drawing this out forever. I think I spelled out my stance pretty clearly. I cited Israel for the simple reason it has one of THE strictest requirements for mandatory military service in the world. End of story.

      • @greglaxer

        In other words, you have no response, and just seem to be advocating something for no reason, at least no reason relevant to the point of this article, and in fact even cite an example that undermines your very claim. Oh well.

    • @claywise

      “@Ezra As Marlantes points out, and I paraphrase, it *is* morally objectionable to require someone to put on the uniform. That’s why true national service, with non-military options (and indeed, the military wouldn’t know what to do with that many conscripts), is what he suggests. ”

      I was responding to Greg Laxer who said, “Ezra–I don’t think the concept of compulsory “national service” is a problem, in and of itself. If the United States used its military only to actually defend itself, or as part of a genuine humanitarian rescue effort of civilians somewhere as part of a multi-national operation, I would find it difficult to object.” Presumably he’s talking of service in the military he talks of defending the nation and rescuing civilians in multi-national operations.

      And I know what you and others mean by “National Service”, it’s what Germany had until 2011 (for males anyway). I don’t see how this would radically effect the military though? The military would essentially still be all-volunteer and it wouldn’t create a situation where your kids or I or what not would have to go into the military regarding a conflict, so what’s the point? When Germany had it, they still sent troops to Afghanistan, all volunteer, as conscripts didn’t A. have to choose the military and B. even if they did, would not be sent without signing up for such a mission. So again, what’s the point if you think we need conscripts in the military?

      “True enough that having a draft didn’t stop the United States from adventuring overseas. What it did do, arguably, was give Americans enough stake in the Vietnam war that they actually cared and eventually spoke out in opposition. ”

      Sort of, but mass opposition to Iraq and Afghanistan also existed, but the mainstream media learned its lesson in the 60s and made sure not to put it on Primetime TV every night. The Democrats took a lot of the wind out of the anti-war movement as well. I don’t see how a draft would necessarily fix these issues? We have a lot more issues than just plain ol’ apathy.

      “One of the dangers of our current system, as I write, is that 99.5% of Americans don’t serve, and not many more have any kind of stake in our wars, so what the heck? Let’s cheer the boys and call ‘em heroes!”

      We called our boys heroes even when we had a draft. It’s kind of what medals are for. Also, it’s not like this fetish with the military and lionizing of it began after Vietnam. And we all have a stake in these wars, since we pay for them and face the consequences, no?

      “I think you are right that massive societal and economic changes would seem to be a prerequisite. But it’s worth discussing.”

      I agree this is worth discussing, but I’m not saying any framework or model of “national service” being presented, at least not so far.

      “I truly think the historical comparison to Scipio, Rome and the Praetorian guards is apt … and scary.”

      We’re not the Roman Empire though :P

      Thanks for your time, hope we can continue this discussion

  11. Reviving the draft is not the answer. Downsizing the military, as well as related agencies like intelligence, Homeland Security, and so on, is the answer. We need to reinvest in America, not in foreign entanglements. We need to stop militarizing everything and start remembering we’re a democracy that used to be deeply skeptical of large standing militaries.

    In 2008 I wrote an article on reviving national service. I still think we should. I don’t think it should be mandatory, but it could offer lots of college benefits/job training for willing young people. Here’s some of what I wrote in 2008:

    http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174980

    From 1933 to 1942, the CCC enrolled nearly 3.5 million men in roughly 4,500 camps across the country. It helped to build roads, build and repair bridges, clear brush and fight forest fires, create state parks and recreational areas, and otherwise develop and improve our nation’s infrastructure — work no less desperately needed today than it was back then. These young men — women were not included — willingly lived in primitive camps and barracks, sacrificing to support their families who were hurting back home.

    My father, who served in the CCC from 1935 to 1937, was among those young men. They earned $30 a month for their labor — a dollar a day — and he sent home $25 of that to support the family. For those modest wages, he and others like him gave liberally to our country in return. The stats are still impressive: 800 state parks developed; 125,000 miles of road built; more than two billion trees planted; 972 million fish stocked. The list goes on and on in jaw-dropping detail.

    Not only did the CCC improve our country physically, you might even say that experiencing it prepared a significant part of the “greatest generation” of World War II for greatness. After all, veterans of the CCC had already learned to work and sacrifice for something larger than themselves — for, in fact, their families, their state, their country. As important as the G.I. Bill was to veterans returning from that war and to our country’s economic boom in the 1950s, the CCC was certainly no less important in building character and instilling an ethic of teamwork, service, and sacrifice in a generation of American men.

    Today, we desperately need to tap a similar ethic of service to country. The parlous health of our communities, our rickety infrastructure, and our increasingly rickety country demands nothing less.

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  14. During WW-2 there were draft dodgers just like every war in American history. Although the myth of a united nation in WW-2 is widespread. American troops liberated concentrations camps and “murdered” many guards at these camps. How does that affect what they accomplished? Many people sat out the War of Independence and many were waiting to see which side would win the on going struggle. Atrocities were committed. Does than mean the cause of Independence was invalid? In the Civil War that ended slavery the rich purchased their way out of the draft by paying money directly to others to take their place. When the Union Army occupied Clarkesville, Tennessee they went on a rampage of rape and murder. Does this in anyway diminish the cause? How does this negate the objective of preserving the Union and overthrowing slavery once an for all? You would have all “soldiers” be perfect. This is not achievable and you know it is not achievable. So I suspect the purpose of your article lies elsewhere. As a Marine (no combat experience) I see many of my fellow Marines who have served in combat as heroes not because they were “perfect” but because when tested they did their duty. They may have join for many different reasons, so what? No human being acts with only one degree of motivation. No matter what the motivation, the Independence of the United States, the preservation of the Union and the defeat of Fascism and Communism are there for all to see. All of these where mortal threats to our personal freedoms. In my family history there were eight officers who served their country including myself. Six of them died in the service and the best monument to these heroes is the relative safety and security we now enjoy in spite of the failings of any individuals involved.

    I will leave you with a poignant poem which says it all and is the reason they are heroes including your grandfather.

    It is the Soldier, not the minister
    Who has given us freedom of religion.

    It is the Soldier, not the reporter
    Who has given us freedom of the press.

    It is the Soldier, not the poet
    Who has given us freedom of speech.

    It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
    Who has given us freedom to protest.

    It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
    Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

    It is the Soldier, not the politician
    Who has given us the right to vote.

    It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
    Who serves beneath the flag,
    And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
    Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

    • Forgive me, “ER,” bit I feel compelled to add a stanza to your poem:

      “If the citizenry doesn’t awaken soon from its torpor, it will be
      The Soldier who finally extinguishes the Lamp of Liberty.”

      GREG LAXER
      US Army 1967-71

      • Sorry friend it is not my poem and I do not think the author would approve of your addition. Father O’Brien Chaplain USN

        However I will give you some more food for thought since you are in the quoting mood

        “Grand pop were you a hero in the war? No son but I served with heroes”. Capt Winters Band of Brothers

  15. Call me old fashioned but the men and women who laid down or gave up their lives in WW2…whether they were the nurses or the members of the various Resistance groups throughout the occupied countries or the Allied sailors, airmen and soldiers who fought for whatever personal reasons, are “heroic” to me.

    • Sally–I think you didn’t grasp the context of the original article. The Big War was 70+ years ago. Though I was not alive at that time, I am a student of history and a film buff. Of course the United States manufactured a lot of propaganda intended to inflame passions against the German-Italian-Japanese Axis (with the Japanese singled out for racist stereotyping, but that’s a topic for another day) and to try to boost morale here on the home front. But the proliferation of electronic media in today’s society, the rise of far-rightwing publishing/broadcasting empires and the ever-expanding influence of the Military-Industrial Complex have brought us to a truly Orwellian present (quasi?-) reality. They want you to believe that everyone who puts on the uniform of the US military is a hero by definition because at all cost they DON’T WANT you to QUESTION the morality of the perpetual wars they conveniently manufacture to keep themselves fat and happy, that is, profitable. This absurd notion that “everyone’s a hero” renders the very word hero MEANINGLESS. And all these stunts of having servicepersons come home on unannounced leaves to “surprise” their loved ones back home, with TV news crews conveniently standing by so we can see it all on the evening news? Every time I see one of these I want to throw a brick at my TV set. A new low was set in my locality when it was revealed the “heroic” soldier making the visit home hadn’t even completed Basic Training yet!!! GIVE ME A FRICKIN’ BREAK!! But you see, the order has come down the chain of command, all the way to our local media, that this is the theme that is to be pursued. A lot has changed since World War II, Sally. And a whole lot of it is NOT for the better.

      • Well said. I’d also add that the label “hero” shouldn’t be tied too closely to the military and war. Sure, there were heroes in World War II. But there are also heroes in everyday life. I think of my mother, who raised five kids while enduring the ravages of cancer. My dad recalled that she never once complained about the radiation treatments and chemotherapy she endured in the 1970s. She died in 1980 after five years of valiant struggle. To me, she was a hero.

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