On war, service and heroes

Recently, two essays have appeared with scathing dismissals of military literature and military heroism in response to American Sniper. Both essays were authored by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and are worthy of serious consideration, the first Roy Scranton’s lengthy and pedantic consideration of what he deems the “myth of the trauma hero,” in the LA Times Review of Books, and the second Adrian Bonenberger’s essay in The Concourse suggesting that American Sniper propagates a myth of military heroism.

Their essays are notable for such strong dismissal of the concept of heroism itself after both have served, though also not at all original. Few returning soldiers of any war are comfortable with the label of hero, and so Scranton and Bonenberger take their place among the masses who have worn the uniform. It’s not humility they seem to be expressing, however, but outrage, though it’s unclear exactly about what.

Scranton purports to dismiss most of war literature from Wilfred Owen’s WWI poetry and moving through the 20th century giving deference to Tim O’Brien’s famous quote that there are no true war stories, though his selections support his purpose and are far from complete.

The question arises: why this anger? And what is the argument missing?

The biggest problem with both Scranton’s and Bonenberger’s essays is the pure focus on the soldier him (or her) self, with no regard for the system which builds, supports and deploys the armed forces.

In a recent dinner conversation, a friend relayed a sentiment I’d heard before: soldiers are terrorists; soldiers are murderers. Scranton himself seems to subscribe to this idea as he describes what he sees as the myth of the trauma hero used to justify our wars: “It does that precisely by turning a killer into a victim, a war hero into a trauma hero.” Bonenberger takes a slightly softer stance: “There are no heroes…killing does not lead to epiphany…the people who thrive at war accept some of war’s hatred inside of them.”

It occurs to me that important as these concepts may be, taken apart from discussion in the full context of war and society they may do real harm toward our understanding of and respect for service.

Since Augustine first put forth the idea of just war, and Thomas Aquinas and others later defined it, the idea of both criteria for the right to go to war (jus bellum) as well as right conduct in war (jus in bello) has remained in doctrine and theory for not only theologians but also policy makers, though many lament its lack of consideration in recent decades. What is important about this idea is that the responsibility of entering a war lies with the government made up of men and women elected by the people. The military is the part of a society that executes that decision, but decision making itself belongs with the government, and by extension, the citizenry.

Included in these theories and doctrines is a commonly accepted distinction between murder, an illegal killing of another person, and killing in war, which though horrific, is conducted under prescribed circumstances. That war and killing are the worst part of humanity is not debatable. Whether or not a particular war is necessary is the important question, and this question does not lie with the individual soldier.

Essays in the past year, including Helen Benedict’s Divided Souls in Guernica, focus exclusively on the individual soldier, and an individual soldier cannot and should not in any society at any time bear the weight of decision to go to war. Benedict’s essay holds that when she looks into the eyes of a soldier, she is looking into a divided soul. Certainly she is right; authors of the most recent essays are among those clearly struggling with divisionas a result of their military service in time of war. What neither Benedict nor the most recent detractors of service are considering is the responsibility of the society, which is to say the others, which is to say each one of us.

Without assigning proper responsibility to society and indeed, ourselves, for engaging in a war, we cannot possibly consider the concept of service. As much of the war literature across time reveals, that mentioned by Scranton and that which is not, soldiers are at times pushed to extremes few other humans will experience. These extremes reveal the essence of humanity, at times heroic, at times courageous, at times cowardly, at times even horrific. The men and women who wear the uniform have taken an oath, for any number of reasons, to put their lives on the line and to face this part of themselves on behalf of a society from which we all benefit and in which we all participate.

Nothing about service is simple and much bears a great deal of nuance. The highly controversial study by S.L.A. Marshall suggests that low percentages of soldiers actually fired their weapons during combat. There is in any human institution abuse and corruption, and the incidence of sexual assaults in the military is nothing short of horrendous and worthy of full investigation and prosecution into both individuals and culture. Any war crimes require the same. Still, these grievous offenses are committed by a minority of those in uniform. The majority serves with honor and accepts with the uniform a way of life and service that subverts the self to a higher authority to support a society we have decided, for all of its failings, is still the best place to live, or is, at the very least, our home.

And still an individual cannot bear the weight of heroism, either. In a time when our society dismisses God, it is quick to try to make little gods of politicians, celebrities and service members, and a single person is not worthy of deification. This is what Scranton and Bonenberger seem to be saying. At the same time, service itself cannot be dismissed because of human and societal failings. Service as an action and as exemplar of character is something we need; military service (not killing) is heroic, and while we can’t effectively make gods, we need our heroes.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a hero as one who is “admired for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities.” A second definition suggests a person of superhuman or semi-divine qualities. To acknowledge our heroes does not by extension condone the actions of our government. The definition allows some latitude, and I’d suggest that Scranton and Bonenberger accept our thanks and perhaps even the label of their service, if not themselves, and permit us the honor of bestowing the idea of “hero” on those who are willing to fight and die for our country.

Whether or not they should be asked to do so, the rest of us will have to answer.

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