Redefining heroism: Thank veterans by insisting wars are just, honorable

Peter Berres of Lexington is an educator and a member of Veterans for Peace.
Peter Berres of Lexington is an educator and a member of Veterans for Peace.

I'm a Vietnam veteran. During my tour, I killed, was wounded, and earned medals. And, in spite of a senseless and immoral war, I am proud to have served honorably.

But I'm not a hero.

In fact, most veterans wear "hero" with some embarrassment. For those witness to actual heroism or otherwise aware of worthy actions, that moniker can be burdensome, even destructive.

A culture of "heroifcation" doesn't serve veterans; it serves the military/industrial/security state.

As a recruitment lure, it promises an illusion and bestows an implausible goal. Even less defensible, applying "hero" as a Band-Aid to psychological and physical wounds makes it difficult for soldiers to admit vulnerability, guilt, mental torment, or seek help — which subsequently plays out in the tragic parade of veteran suicides (about 100,000 from Vietnam, about 4,000 from Iraq/Afghanistan).

An invaluable Veterans Day-inspired-national-reflection would reformulate our cultural definition of hero beyond only courageous combat action, measured in enemies killed or comrades rescued.

It would include moral courage — the soldier who, uncertain if the target is enemy or child, holds fire, who challenges atrocities, who doesn't take advantage of poorly formulated orders couched in euphemisms (free fire zones), or code words (gooks, rag heads, terrorists), who eschews culturally induced and militarily ingrained desensitization to brutalize innocents or kill indiscriminately.

An even more worthy definition of hero would recognize the strength of character in soldiers who jeopardize their future by questioning the legitimacy of war, who risk their lives by refusing an immoral or illegal order even while others follow obediently.

Such support would help undercut psychological and spiritual harms by preserving soldiers' dignity and moral compass.

Heroes, in the official narrative, are motivated by duty to protect freedom and national security. Like most of us, individual soldiers are motivated by life goals (economic, career, educational), by personal growth (discipline, identity, purpose, belonging), or by situation (boredom, routine or lack of opportunities and direction).

And it has to be said — though uncomfortably — too many are motivated by psychological disorders: proclivity for violence, physical dominance, racism or hatred, any of which may inspire courageous behavior. But should they be venerated heroes?

As an actual motivation, duty to country is minimal, rather rare or, in my case, naïve. Some embrace it, others pay lip service.

Irrespective of motivational mixtures, serving one's country is not inherently noble or heroic and to assert otherwise devalues soldiers and degrades actions which are.

Making Veterans Day more meaningful will necessarily involve a critical examination of what is meant by "protecting freedoms and national security."

Since Vietnam, it's questionable to what extent (if at all) our freedoms are threatened by designated enemies. What is undebatable, and an ironic twist of fate, is that our constitutional freedoms are threatened by a flourishing security state and insatiable war economy, and that our national security is neither enhanced nor justified by the human and physical destruction of our involvements, effectively creating more terrorists than we kill.

The swing of American political consciousness from shameful blaming of Vietnam veterans for that war to valorizing every soldier, while failing to challenge the legitimacy and effectiveness of current wars -— (as if tantamount to condemning veterans) are both irresponsible.

Blaming a bad war on veterans, or camouflaging a bad war with veterans, is equally dishonorable.

Like other celebrations, Veterans Day has lost its spirit and value — its potential — to commercial, political and cultural interests.

When the day is diminished to symbolic honoring with patriotic products or symbolic activities, we lose an opportunity to discuss critical realities, to sharpen informed thought or engage in meaningful actions which could help — and honor — veterans, present and future.

"Thank yous" are fine, they feel good, but cannot substitute for our patriotic duty and moral responsibility to critically examine and challenge conflicts (and conduct within them) not essential to either our legitimate freedoms or genuine security and which, consequently, deprive veterans of a noble cause.

Despite good intentions in how we honor and thank veterans, the most meaningful manner of thanking and protecting veterans is to assure our military involvements are just and honorable.