Why Are Victims Our Only War Heroes?
By Captain Roger Lee Crossland,
U.S. Naval Reserve
Proceedings, April 2004
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man,
but he is braver five minutes longer.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
We are at war. Our enemy, the terrorist, knows he cannot win militarily, certainly not in terms of manpower or weaponry, so he somehow must get us to back down—wear us down and diminish our resolve. He hopes to do that through images and perceptions. The ultimate battle of the global war on terrorism will be fought in the hearts and minds of Americans.
Pfc. Jessica Lynch receives the Purple Heart.
We must make a concerted, deliberate effort to counterbalance the terrorists’ tactic. Thus far, we have overlooked perhaps the most important image in our arsenal, that of the hero in war, and of his or her determination. It is an image we have failed to present adequately in our prosecution of this war. In earlier times, the American public could recite names such as Boatswain’s Mate Reuben James, Lieutenant William Cushing, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, Sergeant Alvin York, Mess Attendant Dorie Miller, and Sergeant Audie Murphy as easily as they could their own home addresses. The individual heroes of the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, generally are unknown. Deluged by lengthy, detailed stories of the extreme efforts taken by terrorists, we have heard little of the extreme efforts taken by members of the U.S. armed forces.
We help our enemies by default, by allowing lesser images to be presented as substitutes. Everyone knows the name Jessica Lynch. She wore her country’s uniform, went willingly to her duty in Iraq, and suffered grievous injuries, but does she qualify to be known first among those who served in this war? We have brushed aside battlefield resolution and action—which should be foremost—and allowed the image of victimization and suffering to take its place.
For some today, the only image they know is of U.S. servicemen and women as victims. That is not right. It cannot continue. Worse still, we risk having our children’s perception become that signing up to serve is signing up to become a victim.
Battlefield heroes do not make the front pages anymore. Perhaps there is some policy that fears the glorification of violence; violence is never productive, therefore, no violence should be glorified. Well, wars are violent. Individual and self-defense are violent. War heroes are violent. Bravery in battle frequently requires violent acts.
Violence is not inherently bad. Heroes in war must be prepared to be violent.
Another factor surely at work is that victims are easier to identify and celebrate than heroes. They are less controversial. They inspire sympathy. They can be identified using fairly objective standards. It is their status rather than their acts or intentions that define them. Clearly, we need to know their stories, but we should give greater attention to the heroes of war. Substituting victims for heroes, the media have cheapened the concept of heroism. They have sent it into obscurity.
Psychology Was the Death of Courage ...
... and of persistence, endurance, and that whole set of virtues that comprise our moral value system. If, as Freud would assert, will is an illusion and all behavior is causally determined, it is illogical to admire moral attributes. It has become the fashion of the age to believe there is no such thing as a hero.
Perhaps it also is the whipsaw approach of 24-hour news coverage struggling to maintain ratings. No sooner do the media show an admirable act than the next day’s feature points out the central performer has feet of clay. It may be our fear that no one can withstand today’s scrutiny. Heroes are human beings, and as humans they will be flawed. That, however, is not sufficient reason to allow heroes to be overlooked. It is only a reason to be sure there is quality control in their recognition. That quality control must focus only on the heroic act, however, not on lifetime personal decorum.
There may be another more disturbing aspect to the disappearance of heroes. Heroism, by definition, implies a superior quality for a moment in time. A hero, therefore, is a superior individual by virtue of superior conduct, and the politically correct will not countenance that. No one is superior to anyone else, nothing is better than anything else, no cause is greater than any other. The United States is not exceptional, nor are U.S. causes. Victims, on the other hand, are perfectly politically correct.
By our focus on victimization, we have adopted our enemies’ standard of measure, and are handing them a victory. As Charles Krauthammer noted in the 8 December 2003 issue of Time, “That is the enemy’s entire war objective: to inflict pain. And that is why it would be a strategic error to amplify and broadcast that pain by making great shows of sorrow presided over by the President himself. In the midst of an ongoing war, a guerrilla war, a war that will be won and lost as a contest of wills, the Commander in Chief—despite what he feels in his heart—must not permit himself to show that he bleeds.”
When Did It All Start?
The end of the Vietnam War generated a peculiar hybrid—the victim-hero. That conflict had so rent the fabric of America that battlefield heroes were ignored or actively disparaged. The returning prisoners of war (POWs), however, were something different. They were unequivocal victims, many of whom had resisted their captors heroically with the little means they had at hand. There were no issues of collateral damage or innocent lives lost in their stories of captivity. Most Americans who lived during that period still can recite the names of one or two POWs. Far fewer can name a single Vietnam battlefield hero.
Battlefield heroes such as Sergeant Audie Murphy—shown above, right, receiving the Medal of Honor from General “Iron Mike” O’Daniel—once were as familiar to the American public as their own names. Today, from Afghanistan and Iraq, the faces in the spotlight are of those victimized by war, as Army Private First Class Jessica Lynch. For some, the only image they know of U.S. servicemembers is as victims.
On the release of the POWs, the U.S. military made a concerted effort to ensure the POWs were cared for and protected. Perhaps because this was the closing chapter of the war, the U.S. military expended considerable effort in ensuring that their stories were properly told. These were noncontroversial stories of great resolve. Contemporaneous stories of battlefield heroism were never accorded the same priority.
Was it at this point that we began our descent on the slippery slope of “safe” heroes, heroes whose conduct was largely nonviolent, played out off the battlefield? Was it at this point we began to abandon warriors performing warriorlike acts as our model?
We need heroes. We have heroes. We cannot afford to overlook them.
The global war on terrorism will pivot on the resolve of the American public. The resolve of the American public will pivot on what is held up as worthy—about itself and those who fight for it. The images we use to tell the story will help America find its way through this conflict.
Several Navy Crosses, Distinguished Service Crosses, and Air Force Crosses have been awarded since 11 September 2001 as part of the global war on terrorism. The processing of Medals of Honor, of course, takes longer. Yet, it is difficult to find these citations anywhere. Chief Stephen Bass was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism in Afghanistan, and understanding that aspects of his service still are highly classified, no abbreviated and unclassified version of his citation is readily obtainable. The Department of Defense does not maintain an Internet site for new recipients of senior awards for valor. If the personal security of the servicemembers is a concern, then the citations still should be released using noms de guerre.
We cannot let the terrorists control the images and perceptions that govern our decisions. We must not forfeit the high ground. This conflict should not be defined exclusively by the images of victims. This is a war of resolve. We must recognize and draw inspiration from those who have demonstrated resolve.
Captain Crossland is a SEAL reserve officer who was mobilized for duty in Southwest and Central Asia as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002. In civilian life, he is a trial lawyer with offices in Stratford, Connecticut.