Does War Make a Hero?
By Staff News & Analysis - July 23, 2010

Every soldier a hero? Hardly … Simply joining the armed services does not make you a hero, nor does the act of serving in combat … When I was a kid in the 1970s, I loved reading accounts of American bravery during World War II. And I was proud that my uncle had earned a Bronze Star for his service on Guadalcanal. So it came as something of a shock when, in 1980, I first heard Yoda's summary of warriors and war in "The Empire Strikes Back." Luke Skywalker, if you remember, tells the wizened Jedi master that he seeks "a great warrior." "Wars not make one great," Yoda replies. – LA Times

Dominant Social Theme: If one serves one's country, one is a hero.

Free-Market Analysis: This is an interesting article, one that has appeared on the 'Net in several versions and from our perspective adds to the faint tonality we think we have detected as regards a general retreat from the overt militaristic rhetoric of America's leaders in the previous decade. It is written by William J. Astore, "a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, who teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology," which makes it fairly impervious to criticism. Astor is obvious an American patriot, and he writes as a concerned citizen.

Here at the Bell, we have long been aware of the dominant social theme of "American military as heroes." It has in our view been an incredibly successful and powerful dominant social theme. The simple act of putting on a military "uniform" within current contexts ennobles a young person at the beginning of his or her life. Here's some more from the article:

Certainly, military service (especially the life-and-death struggles of combat) can provide an occasion for the exercise of heroism, but simply joining the armed services does not make you a hero, nor does the act of serving in combat. Still, ever since the events of 9/11, there's been an almost religious veneration of U.S. service members as "Our American Heroes" (as a well-intentioned sign puts it at my local post office).

But a snappy uniform — or even dented body armor — is not a magical shortcut to hero status. A hero is someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place. Heroes, of course, come in all sizes, shapes, ages and colors, most of them looking nothing like John Wayne or John Rambo or GI Joe (or Jane).

The militarization of American society is a long-term project in our opinion. It began shortly after Vietnam when the Pentagon, confronting the wreckage of failed military policies, began a rehabilitation campaign that resulted in the formation of a private, volunteer army. In retrospect, this approach was wildly successful. The all-volunteer army provided a way for the military-industrial complex to separate itself from the larger society and build its own power-base and expand funding sources unconstrained by negative public perceptions.

It is almost a truism by now that those in the US military are in some sense contemptuous of their civilian counterparts. They are in fact taught (in a sense) to be contemptuous because it is part of the process of breaking down a potential soldier's personality in order to remove the social, ethical and biological barriers to killing. The soldier during this process becomes profoundly "other' – which is one reason why so many have trouble reintegrating when they return to civilian life. The US suicide rate among young military veterans is tragically high.

What is also true about the modern American military is that those who have a military background have been increasingly welcomed into the standing power structure of the United States. The CIA, FBI and myriad intelligence agencies recruit from a military pool and thus military attitudes increasingly pervade these government entities.

The militarization of America's leadership has numerous ramifications, among them the assumption that military activity itself can trump culture, economics and of course individual human action. Confronted with the arrogance of the Barack Obama administration, one tends to forget the determined hubris of the Bush regime – and the notion that military activity was intrinsically valuable. Here's an excerpt from a famous article by Ron Suskind, a former Wall Street Journal reporter that appeared in an issue of Sunday's New York Times Magazine way back in 2004:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'

I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

This anecdote, as related above, became a kind of Internet sensation. It encapsulated in a profound way an expansive approach to the American "exception," one that harkened backwards rather than forward. The American exception, in its initial, colonial incarnation, had to do with the creation of a republican society that would be different than the class-ridden and soul-suffocating societies of ancient Europe. It would avoid the twin traps of governmental repression and authoritarian hubris.

Suskind's reporting seemed to show that impulse had departed from the heads of America's ruling class 250 years later to be replaced by the very sort of thinking that the American founders had hoped to avoid. There were many Internet commentaries on Suskind's piece. Here's an eloquent excerpt from Justin Raimondo at

Anyone who believes that governments create reality is living in a fantasy world, and is surely no conservative, neo- or otherwise, either politically or temperamentally. As the conservative philosopher Claes Ryn has pointed out, "Only great conceit could inspire a dream of armed world hegemony. The ideology of benevolent American empire and global democracy dresses up a voracious appetite for power. It signifies the ascent to power of a new kind of American, one profoundly at odds with that older type who aspired to modesty and self-restraint."

Conceit, as I have pointed out before, has always been the defining characteristic of the imperialistic personality, but the sort of hubris exhibited above – "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality" – goes beyond anything the world has yet seen. The maddest of Roman emperors took care to propitiate the gods, even as they accorded themselves divine status. But none dared venture their own creation myth. This is not just a new kind of American, as Professor Ryn would have it, but a new species of madmen.

The epistemology of modern-day imperialism gives us a glimpse into minds afflicted with a novel form of mental illness, one made possible not only by the concentration of centralized power in the American metropolis, but also by advanced technology and the evolution of the military arts. The savage thug who believes he can control reality by the use of his club – Ayn Rand called this archetype "Attila," after the infamous Hun – has been supplanted by the Gucci-suited technocrat who believes he can create reality by simply pushing a button or issuing an order. By commanding black-winged jet fighters to blast his enemies out of existence, the modern Attila believes he is constructing a new reality, one where his whims, his prejudices, his prissy little orthodoxies have the force of natural law. In short, the neocons are just plain crazy …

As we have mentioned, we believe we have detected some moderation in the perspective of the elite as regards military power and authoritarianism generally. The president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N. Haass recently published a Newsweek cover story pointing out that the Afghanistan war was pretty-much unwinnable and needed to be "managed" to a successful conclusion.

The Washington Post has just published a series of cautionary reports about the uncontrolled growth of America's "terror-industrial" complex. We are also cognizant of noises of dismay emanating from the Pentagon as regards budgetary inefficiencies. In fact, there seems to be a realization among the top brass that the days of unconstrained spending are over and that past attitudes toward budgetary matters must be moderated. (Perhaps there is even some rethinking about the merits of an upcoming Iranian war?)

None of this, of course, adds up to a reversal of the elite's perception of America-as-empire. Indeed, the Anglo-American axis increasingly bestrides the world like the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, surveying all it sees and determined, apparently, to impose its form of increasingly authoritarian regulatory democracy on every region it can possibly control – Afghanistan included. What has changed in our view is the perception that such impositions are in any sense easy-to-accomplish or inexpensive, or that the outcome is pre-ordained.

For the past decades, especially under the Bush administration, the trends seemed to run against civil society. Habeas corpus was attacked, torture was legitimized along with anonymous "rendition." Most recently, the Obama administration has claimed the right to shoot American citizens on sight (and without any form of "due process") if it considered them a "terrorist" threat, or aiding and abetting a terrorist war effort. Nonetheless, we hope what we consider a whiff of military modesty grows more noticeable, even though history shows us that the battle to restore the liniments of civil society to a culture that has abandoned them is difficult and often unsuccessful.

After Thoughts

What does offer hope is the Internet – a platform to speak out against the military mindset – and increasing difficulties that Western societies are having in funding military ventures. It may be also that the powers-that-be themselves have concluded that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction and that they are in danger of some sort of blowback. Whatever the reason, any rhetorical support for civil society (as opposed to the virtues of authoritarianism) is encouraging. We hope the trend continues.

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