Hero Fatigue: Beware the Propaganda

Last week's revelation of a video which showed Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban handed people who see our troops as victims, or less than honorable members of society, an opportunity to remind us that our troops have no business wearing a halo. Yesterday, I came across an editorial which lamented the fact that our troops are so often portrayed in a positive light and our enemies are invariably "depicted negatively."

Ms. Heard, the author of the editorial, devotes several paragraphs to explaining how the Pentagon, our government, schools, news organizations and others have worked to create and maintain an angelic, heroic, do-good image of American troops.

The establishment cloaks those who serve with honour. Fox News projects them as almost saintly showing soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan distributing sweets to clamouring kids or working with rural populations to build schools. Hollywood partners with the Pentagon to produce inspirational war films: the Pentagon seeks propaganda for recruitment purposes, supplying moviemakers with equipment and extras in return for censorship over scripts. On the rare occasions within those virtual co-productions when soldiers break the code they are always seen to be punished.

When the 1986 film Top Gun was released, army recruiting booths were installed inside cinemas. Movies such as Black Hawk Down featuring the Pentagon’s Black Hawk helicopters indoctrinate the public with the belief that Marines are dedicated, honourable and so loyal to their fellows that, despite the dangers, no man is ever left behind. Naturally, the other side is invariably depicted negatively. It is always America’s enemies who take pleasure in killing, raping and torturing.

Although I take exception to much of Ms. Heard's piece, it did bring up an interesting question. Is it a mistake to think of our troops as heroes? Have we placed an undeserved amount of admiration and trust in those who serve?

I agree with Ms. Heard that in some corners there is, and always has been, an effort to paint our troops in a positive light. But I believe this comes more from the public's desire to honor and support our troops during war and less from a grand conspiracy involving all sorts of groups who have competing and often divergent agendas. As with the clergy or counselors or any other occupation which relies on public trust, there is an understandable amount of shock and outrage when someone deviates from the mold. But when they do, that does not mean that the mold should be thrown away. Motives aside, it's my belief that those who volunteer to serve their country, particularly in a time of war, deserve the positive adulation they so often receive. And it's worth noting that the halo is involuntarily placed upon them. But our troops are human and sometimes humans do terrible things. Things which a mere apology can never fix.

My takeaway from Ms. Heard's piece is that she would be comfortable swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction and feels that our troops and their leadership should be looked upon contemptuously because of an established "dehumanizing culture." Your mileage may vary. Ms. Heard does one thing very well, though. She makes the case that so frustrates those of us who are members of the military community. She pulls out examples of unacceptable conduct and leaves the impression that neither the military nor the American people care if our angelic troops misbehave or worse, commit "heinous crimes." The American people have been duped or, to use her word, "indoctrinated." It seems we're all patsies who have fallen prey to some sort of high-level public relations campaign designed to transform the American service member from mere mortal into the second coming of Christ.

But unfortunately for those who guard its secrets, in these Facebook/YouTube times inconvenient truths emerge to burst that carefully contrived noble bubble. Yet the American people have been so successfully indoctrinated that no matter what volume of heinous crimes comes to the surface, they still buy-in to the few bad apples line put out by former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to excuse the physical, emotional and sexual abuse suffered by Iraqis detained at Abu Ghraib.
We do not minimize or "excuse" the occasions when service members misbehave, desecrate the war dead or treat others inhumanely. Nor should we. Military families understand (more than most) that during war, the unacceptable behavior of a "few bad apples" has a detrimental effect on all troops and makes their mission harder than it already is. There is no upside to bad behavior in a war zone. But reasonable people will understand that these examples are the exception and not the rule, and they realize there are varying degrees of bad behavior.

For every Abu Ghraib and offensive video, there are thousands upon thousands of examples of our troops conducting themselves with honor and  integrity. They are making a meaningful difference in the lives of others. But try to tell that to someone who believes millions of Americans and service members are victims of a grand conspiracy which has successfully transformed us from free-thinking individuals capable of making reasonable judgments on our own to zombies who will swallow ill-placed propaganda hook, line and sinker. There is room for both. We are capable of viewing our troops as honorable and castigating those who bring dishonor upon their profession.

Calling a spade a spade is neither dangerous nor unwise. Not understanding that occasionally a spade doesn't work as advertised is both.

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