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Calling the Troops “Heroes” Is a Lie That Puts Them – and Democracy – in Danger

Despite an overwhelming post-9/11 cultural consensus, serving in the military does not automatically make anyone a hero.

Lt. Alexander Bonnyman (4th from right) and his assault party storming a Japanese stronghold in Tarawa, Gilbert Islands, November 1943. (Photo: Obie Newcomb / National Archives and Records Administration)

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.

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.

“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.

“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.


[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,, 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,, 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

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