The Military’s “Heroes” and the Scourge of Nationalism

At the airport, one observes an “interesting” composition of human behavior. A recent trip was no exception. Walking into the airport to checkin and check my bag, there was a clearly upset woman at one of the ticket kiosks. She barked at the woman behind the counter (who was assisting someone else) to come help her. When someone appeared, she started berating the airline representative. Then came the line,


Whenever the representative told her something she apparently didn’t like, it was her default response, “I’m military. I’m military.”

This woman clearly felt her membership in the government organization known as the United States Military meant she had the right to something more than the plumber, lawyer, or photographer who walked into the airport a few minutes later.

Why should she expect such special treatment? It’s because she’s received it in the past. This mentality, this automatic laud and honor bestowed upon military personnel is not exclusive to those “in the club.” It’s everywhere. Take major sporting events, for example. Basketball, baseball, hockey, football, there is always something done to “honor our nations heroes.”

I’ll be blunt. Putting on a uniform and stating you stand ready to “deploy, engage, and destroy enemies of the U.S. in close combat” does not make you a hero. Deployment or combat in Iraq, Afghanistan or some other place does not make you a hero. Getting killed doesn’t make you a hero.

When making this sort of statement, I am usually met with reactions ranging from shock to outright condemnation. I’m labeled as “unpatriotic,” “un-American,” and a generally terrible, backward person.

Allow me to argue, however, that these reactions should be far more disturbing than my discomfort at labeling all servicemen heroes. These reactions are illustrative of a larger shift toward and broad acceptance of extreme nationalism. These reactions are the very definition of chauvinism—showing an excessive, prejudiced loyalty to a particular group or cause. Not only is this loyalty unfounded, it is a threat to the very values America is supposed to defend.

A hero is one who is admired for bravery, courage, or other outstanding or noble qualities. There are many members of the military who not only fail to meet these criteria, but reflect quite the opposite. Consider the well-known, and very high rates of sexual assault throughout the military. The U.S. Army reported in 2012 that the rate of violent crime had increased some 64 percent since 2006. They reported, “rape, sexual assault, and forcible sodomy were the most frequent violent sex crimes.” Other studies have found that military bases and the neighborhoods surrounding them, as opposed to being beacons of safety and “American values,” have some of the highest crime rates in the country. A 2003 study by the DOD found that one-third of women seeking employment within the VA system reported being raped or sexually assaulted. In 2013, over 5,000 sexual assault cases were reported.

It’s frequently stated that soldiers “defend our freedom.” However, when one examines how conflict has impacted our liberties, we see the opposite. I have discussed elsewhere how foreign interventions abroad lead to the erosion of freedoms at home. As opposed to strengthening our freedom, those returning from conflict instead usher in and support the very institutions that undermine our freedom. From domestic surveillance to SWAT teams, it was a member of the military who championed their foundation and expansion. Other examples abound.

Others claim that soldiers are heroes because of the “dangers they face every day.” In realty, however, being a member of the military is comparatively less dangerous than other occupations (though the level of danger varies widely depending on a number of factors). Only a relatively small number of servicemen see actual combat. Most sit at a desk performing work you would see in any other office. From 1990 to 2007, the crude mortality rate among members of the military was 71.5 per 100,000. Between 2000 and 2011, the years encompassing the bulk of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the large majority of military deaths were not the result of combat injuries, but transportation and other accidents, and suicide.

Compare this rate to the death rate of loggers or commercial fisherman. More than 127 loggers die for every 100,000 employed. For fishermen, the number is 117.

The kind of blind nationalism displayed toward members of the military breeds a variety of problems. First, it degrades the legacy of those who have engaged in truly heroic actions. If a military member spends his days peeling potatoes while another engages in hostage rescue operations, it’s insulting to the latter to put the former in the “hero” category simply because he wears a similar uniform.

Second, it allows the general public to feel better about sending military personnel into conflict. Andrew Bacevich, a former military officer, discusses in his book, Breach of Trust, that U.S. citizens foster a culture of military worship because it’s a cheap way to assuage guilt. We can praise them all as heroes, stand up and applaud at baseball games, and then without guilt ship them off into battle (you can find a nice review of the book here).

Third, this kind of military-hero rhetoric perpetuates the type of behavior I observed at the airport (and elsewhere–I cannot tell you how many time when working retail I was told we “didn’t honor our veterans” because we didn’t offer a military discount). By being constantly thanked for her “service” (which in all likelihood consisted of desk duty), applauded, and given special treatment, it’s what she comes to expect. When she’s treated like everyone else, it’s an affront to her sensibilities.

Without a doubt, there are some members of the military who deserve the title of “hero,” but painting all members of the military with this brush shuts the door on much needed critical inquiry. We must question the actions of the military. The “support our heroes” mantra blinds us to the fact that war is purely destructive, and guards the criticism of violent actions under a false armor of “honor,” “safety,” and “national security.”

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Associate Professor of Economics at Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.
Beacon Posts by Abigail R. Hall | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst
  • Beyond Homeless