A conversation about military 'heroism'

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Memorial Day always makes me wonder what it is about U.S. culture that makes it anathema to consider people working in the military as anything but selfless sacrificers protecting my freedom. Is it just pure, run-of-the-mill nationalism?

And it's not that I want to make the argument against honoring military service — or think of the people in the military as anything but just people in the military — but the extreme way that our society views the institution is a sure sign that a middle ground is being missed. Or is volunteering to be hired for a potentially dangerous, if paid, position such an act that emotional prostration is the only appropriate response?

It's a little like Louis C.K.'s bit "Of Course, But Maybe."

"Of course if you're fighting for your country, and you get shot or hurt, it's a terrible tragedy. Of course — of course!" he says. "But maybe, maybe if you pick up a gun and go to another country and you get shot, it's not that weird. Maybe if you get shot by the dude you were just shooting at, it's a tiny bit your fault."

I know the entire conversation is almost impossible to have, for a variety of reasons. There's the personal aspect, where you either know somebody who has served, or you've served yourself, so you not only know better, but feel much stronger about the issue. Then there's the knee-jerk politics, with right-wing hawks, and left-wing doves. (Or, among the more benighted, under-appreciated heroes and undeserving traitors.)

The Los Angeles Times took a stab at the question in 2011: "The military is an institution where accountability matters, and this may also account for its popularity," wrote Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg. "Very few institutions, including the military, have perfect records. Scandals have touched many of the key institutions in American life in recent years. But scandals involving the military tend to be short-lived, and they don't leave permanent scars on the institution."

It's just a complicated question without a simple answer: For every person who sees the U.S. military as the business end of American freedom, there's the guy who can't imagine following uniformed orders. Then, of course, some people in the past really have served, fought and died in ways that have made my life possible. And on top of all that, despite all the stories of Vietnam veterans feeling abandoned, or worse, upon their return home, I've personally never met somebody in the military who actually cared what they were being called by the public. Thus, to me, the argument almost seems to skip the very people around whom it revolves.

But there's still that feeling. As Daily Kos wrote last year: "Every other branch of the government is free to be criticized. The White House, Supreme Court, Congress, Department of Education, Department of Health, The Peace Core, Child Protective Services, you name it. The people will agree with you full-heartedly. The second you scratch the branch of government that intimidates foreigners with lethal force though, then they will stare at you with death in their eyes."

On the other hand, the New York Times wrote yesterday how fewer than 20 percent of those in Congress have any military experience, down from 70 percent in 1975.

"In sharp contrast, so many officers have sons and daughters serving that they speak, with pride and anxiety, about war as a 'family business,'" wrote Karl Eikenberry and David Kennedy. "Here are the makings of a self-perpetuating military caste, sharply segregated from the larger society and with its enlisted ranks disproportionately recruited from the disadvantaged. History suggests that such scenarios don’t end well."

So maybe that's what it is: Maybe I've been living next to Fort Carson my entire life, so rah-rah-rah is all I've ever heard. I don't know, but either way, on this Memorial Day, I'm interested in hearing more.

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