The cable and network news have been describing the military personnel killed in Chattanooga as “heroes.” Meanwhile, Donald Trump has been saying that John McCain is not a hero. So what is a hero?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “hero” as “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. “ That leaves open the question of what degree of courage, achievement, or nobility qualifies someone to be characterized as a hero.
In the Chattanooga case, it seems that to be a military recruiter has not required a high degree of any of those qualities, compared with serving in combat overseas. If dozens or hundreds of recruiters are slain in the future, then much more courage will be required to serve as a recruiter. If that were the case, then serving as a recruiter would be heroic in the same way that going to Afghanistan or any other war zone would be heroic. I think that to say everyone who goes into a combat zone is a hero, debases the word. Clearly, everyone who is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor is a hero. You can keep going down the list of medals, but the further down you go and keep calling the recipient a hero, the more you debase the use of the word to describe those who won the highest medals. You have to come up with some superlative beyond hero for them.
John McCain may fall somewhere in that gray region below Congressional Medal of Honor, but I think any pilot or crewman who flies into heavy anti-aircraft fire probably deserves the appellation of hero. The idea of going into great danger despite one’s fear is what makes the act heroic to me. Again, there could be debate about what “great danger” is. Does it mean almost certain death, or only some risk of death? If very few planes were shot down over North Vietnam, that would make McCain’s act less heroic, but I think he went on a pretty risky mission. In addition, his refusal to leave the POW prison before his colleagues was heroic in its nobility.
Again, describing as heroes the slain Marines in Chattanooga, who were shot while going about routine tasks, tends to lower the respect the term gives to people such as McCain and those who won the Congressional Medal of Honor. People use the term loosely because most of them have no interest in or respect for service in the military. They would not serve, and tend to think those who do serve are somewhat foolish or stupid; they are people who could not get a real job in the civilian world. This contempt for the military started with Vietnam, maybe with Korea, and has diminished today, but still exists in the background. People tend to be over complementary of the military to offset the slight contempt they have in the backs of their minds. Maybe because I am a Vietnam veteran who came home to contempt, I misjudge this feeling, but I tend to see the overuse of hero to describe anyone killed as evidence of continuing contempt for real heroism.
In 9/11 for example, all of the first responders seem to be called heroes, but obviously some were more heroic than others. The failure to discriminate between the real heroes and the almost heroes tends to discredit the term. It is the same attitude that today means everybody who competes in some event gets a blue ribbon; it’s why we have grade inflation. But there are differences. Some heroic people are more instrumental in defeating the enemy; some heroes save more lives than others. Failure to recognize that results are important has consequences that may come back to haunt the US someday.