So this month our theme is heroes, a topic I confess I approach with some trepidation. I have a complicated, not particularly positive relationship with the concept of heroes. And yet here I am, first up in the month, ready to tackle this thorny idea. Oy.
Is it too late for me to call in sick?
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in heroes—defined as those who go above and beyond in the service of others. But in current American culture, I feel “heroes” are more often used as a political cudgel, as a way to silence those who would speak out against being victims of the status quo, or people who would ask that law enforcement and public agencies to act with greater understanding and compassion.
Heroism often gets assigned to a job—police, firefighter, or member of the military—and anyone who questions certain specific actions of “heroes” in these jobs in even the mildest way (such as quietly kneeling during the national anthem) is attacked for disrespecting the sacrifice of these “true heroes.” In the case of Colin Kaepernick, his protest has been met with threats of violence, including t-shirts printed with a rifle site targeting his face. For what? Because he’d like one particular group of “heroes” to stop disproportionately killing his people?
In my mind, the hero in this equation is Colin Kaepernick. To some people, by saying so, I’m declaring war on America’s law enforcement “heroes.” I’m not, of course, but that’s how the heroism cudgel works. Some people probably also think I hate the troops, because the heroism cudgel tends to conflate military and paramilitary groups with one another, all in the name of silencing even the mildest criticism.
A while back, I applied for a job with a public agency, and as part of the application I had to list my military service. Normally it’s not something I bring up—not because I’m ashamed of it, but because—well, I’ll get to that. At the job interview, one of the interviewers thanked me for my service. You may have seen this happen, or even done it yourself. They looked at me, earnest and sincere, and said, “Thank you for your service.”
The thing is, this person knew nothing about my service. They didn’t know if I did a good job or bad, if I’d served courageously or not. They just knew I was a “veteran.”
The moment was awkward and performative, but it’s expected now, because we have to “respect the troops.” We’re heroes, after all.
So, what was I being thanked for? I served in the National Guard for six years. I never saw combat. A couple of times we were called out for disaster relief, and I showed up and did my job—which was to drive a truck. I have no doubt I contributed to a genuine need, and I don’t want to devalue either my work or the work of my fellow troops. But we were just men and women doing a job we’d agreed to do. We also griped and got tired and sometimes were pissy. Some of us were genuine jerks, or worse. But mostly we worked our asses off, because that’s what we’d signed up for.
Were we heroes? I never felt like a hero. I hauled gear and supplies, sometimes tanks (that was cool). I served, did my job, and was honorably discharged. Nothing special. Millions have done the same. I didn’t need to be thanked for that service. (Thirty years ago, I was paid for that service.) And I know a lot of former military folks, including many who did serve in combat, who feel the same way. We signed up, we did our job. Please don’t make a big deal out of it.
That’s not to say there aren’t true heroes in the military—heroes in that old-fashioned sense, people who risked themselves for their fellows. And there are old-fashioned heroes among the police, and firefighters, and other areas of public service.
In Time for the Stars, one of Robert Heinlein’s characters says, “…ultimate courage is the commonest human virtue … seven out of ten are Medal of Honor men, given the circumstances.” Heinlein could be creepy and weird about a lot of things, but I believe this is true. I never met the circumstances, so I don’t know if I’d have been among the seven or the three. Still, I believe a lot more people will be traditionally heroic than not, given the chance and the need.
And for most of them, we won’t make any fuss at all.
What about teachers who show up for work everyday, often underpaid and despised by their communities? And when I say despised, I mean deeply hated. Look at who we elect anymore and how they treat education in this country. Our teachers work hard, often in deteriorating conditions, and offer daily sacrifice despite how poorly we as a nation treat them. If we’re going to gaze earnestly at a veteran and say, “Thank you for your service,” why can’t we do the same for teachers?
Partly because when we say it, it doesn’t mean anything. We know it doesn’t mean anything with teachers—otherwise we wouldn’t keep electing people who want to destroy education. But it doesn’t mean anything with veterans either, because we also elect people who don’t care about the troops—they just say they do. One look at veteran’s health care shows how little care this nation shows to its men and women in uniform. But we’ve declared them all “heroes,” as if that’s enough. We say, “Thank you for your service,” as if it absolves us from the fact that we’re not doing anything concrete on their behalf. (The very fact that I’m pointing out how badly we treat veterans will “prove” I hate them to certain people, the people for whom the hero cudgel is a primary weapon. I must hate myself too, since I’m also a veteran.)
As with “Thank you for your service,” declaring every veteran or every cop or every whatever a hero devalues the very term. We throw it out there, and then walk away, no longer feeling any responsibility to hold them accountable for their mistakes, or identify and meet their actual needs—whether it’s proper health care or proper training. They’re heroes, now shut up and stop rocking the boat!
I’d like to feel better about the idea of heroes. I’d like to believe it’s a word that actually means something. I’d like to live in a country where we hold people in authority responsible when they fail on the job or act with criminality, because only then can we truly celebrate those many who act with courage and compassion above and beyond. And I want to live in a country where we don’t feel the need to use an empty platitude like, “Thank you for your service,” because instead we’ve done the work to actually support our veterans, our teachers, our first responders, and our every day citizens who themselves show up, do their jobs, and far more often than not rise to meet whatever circumstances they face.