American soldiers are not heroes. That simple statement is almost always sufficient to provoke a violent reaction among Americans, regardless of their political convictions. But it is very difficult for any soldier, anywhere, to become a hero.
First, heroism requires an extraordinary action. It cannot be a routine performance of obligations. Merely serving in the armed forces, showing up to work at a specified time and performing one’s duties acceptably, does not entitle a soldier to be called a hero. Granted, soldiers in combat do their jobs under stressful and dangerous conditions; so do miners, who are much more rarely praised for their nerve and bravery in spite of their work being much more important to society. Heroism is an individual, spontaneous thing, and due to a lack of courage, inspiration, or opportunity, the vast majority of soldiers will never take a step out of their way to perform such an action.
Second, heroism must be to the benefit of others, if possible to the benefit of humanity as a whole. It is difficult to find a case in which the act of murder – for war is simply murder on a larger scale – can confer a net benefit on humanity or even on a particular group within humanity. What balances killing? How is an Iraqi, for example, benefited because American soldiers killed his president and substituted a new one? How is an American benefited because an Iraqi he never heard of, who never affected his life in any way, was killed by those same soldiers? Death is a subtraction from, not an addition to, the good of humanity. In the words of Andrew Carnegie, “The hero who kills men is the hero of barbarism; the hero of civilisation saves the lives of his fellows.”
Third, heroism must be selfless. Pursuit of an aggressive policy for one’s own self-interest is not an act of heroism, yet every war in which the United States has been engaged since the American Civil War has been fought for the purpose of expanding American authority around the world. The soldiers who enforce this policy with their boots do not do so out of a sense of altruism. They do so because they are paid for it, and because they expect their country and themselves to gain by the transaction. There is no genuine self-sacrifice involved.
Fourth, a soldier who serves in the army of a nation-state cannot claim that he exemplifies heroism by defending his country, because the army is the means by which the state keeps the people in subjection. Merely by putting on its uniform and becoming a visible symbol of its power, he helps the state maintain its monopoly on violence – a monopoly that will be employed against him and those he loves without the slightest hesitation if the need arises. As an agent of the state and its restrictive laws, he is, regardless of his actions, an enemy of humanity rather than its benefactor.
The invention of the “American hero” was a fairly recent historical process. During the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, the men who were applauded were the members of the militia; during the World Wars, that applause was accorded to the draftees and those who enlisted because they were swept up by the spirit of the hour – citizen-soldiers, in other words. Between each of these wars, the members of the regular army received no recognition or adulation. In fact, public opinion was anything but kind to them. At that time, the army was viewed with widespread popular disdain, as a refuge for ruffians and ne’er-do-wells who were too stupid, violent, or indigent to succeed in any other profession.
This perception changed radically with the mass inductions of World War II and was sustained after the war when the United States began to maintain a large peacetime army for the first time in its history. American soldiers came to be portrayed as the active, youthful, principled defenders of the nation who manned the front lines in the battle against communism. Additionally, the conviction that war had become so complex and important that it had to be carried on by skilled professionals supplanted the American tradition of citizen-soldiers and militia. The resulting composite image of the talented, heroic soldier was strengthened by the association of the armed forces with spaceflight and technology, which gave the impression that soldiers were no longer simple grunts, but rather the best-trained and most capable members of the rising generation.
The army’s new portrait was famously destroyed during the Vietnam War, when prolonged infantry fighting demonstrated that the essential nature of the soldier had not changed. From being objects of respect, soldiers rapidly became vilified as the perpetrators of atrocities. Veterans’ groups and family associations responded immediately, launching campaigns such as the National League of Families of Prisoners of War to promote the soldier as a victim of political abuse whose good intentions and role in protecting civilians made him worthy of praise. Their success laid the foundations for the twenty-first century myth of the hero-soldier, applied to an even greater extent after the failed invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the opportunities for blaming someone other than soldiers for the mistakes of the war were commensurately greater.
American soldiers are not heroes. They fight for hire in the service of the state, for its profit and their own. They are not unusual or extraordinary, and there is no reason to surround them with a cult of appreciation. No man whose objective in life is to force his will on his fellow men is worth holding up as an example of heroism.