The evolution of popular perception of "War" in the West during the 21st century is pretty interesting. We have engaged in a series of "Low Intensity" conflicts labelled as "wars" in our Global War on Terror (GWOT). Our losses have been low and are entirely confined to a growing "warrior caste" who have volunteered for duty knowing the consequences of their actions and accepting those consequences pretty willingly. Less than one percent of the population has served in these "wars" and the overall cost in lives has been relatively small on the US side, but Veteran culture is pervasive in our society.
How many times have you attended a public event without a variety of vets being lauded? Pause a moment for a kid in uniform who we know very little about. This soldier is representative of a collective societal guilt. A cultural nod to a group of people enacting our social and economic policies out globally at a personal cost we as individuals are reluctant to pay ourselves. So, in an effort to reward them (and truthfully vindicate our own apathy), we throw parades, talk about how hard their challenges are, and try to ensure our politicians are dumping money into veteran programs and providing for these “heroes” well into their retirement years... after they retire at 40 years of age. We act like these vets are the same as the conscript army of citizen soldiers that were fielded for WWII and Vietnam, but they aren’t. They are volunteers: public servants who chose to join, knowing there was a fight in the works, and who mostly chose jobs that they knew would keep them far from the bloody stuff.
So, from an academic's point of view--this is interesting based on numbers--what does that mean for the rest of us? As you can see, I put a lot of quotation marks in my intro paragraph because as consumers of mainstream media we only see what we are told to see. “All vets are heroes.” They serve(d) and deserve our collective respect. I agree with that, but I think that our collective perspective should be more nuanced. How did they serve? Is a laundry specialist a hero? Someone who only treats fuel and fills up gas tanks? Simply volunteering to serve in ANY capacity is brave because death is a real consequence for any Service Member (SM). But, if your entire enlistment was spent in a recruiting center in Poughkeepsie, how do we equate your service to a guy who closed with and destroyed enemy forces on the field of conflict?
I doubt I would have ever considered this topic if it wasn't for the debacle with Marcus Luttrell and Mohammed Gulab. This entire story forced me to think about the hero "construct" that most of us "combat vets" loathe. Less than 3% of the 0.5% who served in the military are actually "combat vets"; that is even further subdivided when you see that a SHOCKING majority of Direct Action missions in these wars were conducted by an even smaller minority of Special Operations Forces. This is a pretty small band of brothers, right? 99.9% of the war is fought by 0.1% of the military... how does that add up? I don't know, but I do know that the information gap it creates has caused the formation of a "warrior class" mentality amongst all Veterans. But, I digress. Marcus Luttrell, and heroes…
The distortion of information by mainstream media outlets and lack of information by the general public seems to have allowed for all SMs to be perceived as heroes. This matter is complicated further when SMs engage the media and release books discussing their experiences. Enter Mr. Luttrell. Is he a hero? I say no. He would likely say no also (although I hesitate to speak for any of my brothers). With the release of his book, follow up interviews, and a movie, we see a man who is free to remember the most traumatic and reality shattering moments of his life in any frame he chooses, totally free of critical analysis from the media. His “Hero” status absolved him from fact checking. His brothers in arms would never criticize him publicly, and this strengthens the veracity oft his tales in the public eye.
Luttrell and his team engaged in an abortive mission that failed in such a way as to be remembered as the most poignant SOF disaster of the GWOT. His leadership was rewarded posthumously for this fiasco. His memories were chosen over facts and the military remained silent to lessen the embarrassment of a totally botched operation where contingency plans simply didn't exist. Does anyone remember the men of The Light Brigade --immortalized by Lord Tennyson--as anything other than brave? But also foolish, correct? Operation Red Wings was GWOT's Charge of the Light Brigade (and that may be too generous).
Marcus Luttrell is but a small snapshot of a much larger problem. We take our mortal peers and raise them aloft as demagogues. We hold them on high where the oxygen is thin and we are disappointed when they reveal themselves as the mortals they are. War doesn't build heroes, it highlights our natural programming for SURVIVAL. When confronted with adversity, we are all programmed to SURVIVE. Some of us excel under these circumstances... and some die. Do those that distinguish themselves as victors deserve applause? Absolutely. But should they then be relieved of all other obligations and held as simple objects? No. The best of this country should be coming home and working with their skills to build something that matters. The military does an excellent job of rewarding hard work with more hard work. That attitude is what should be carried out of a successful career in service; I am leaving one career of service to fulfill another service obligation to my fellow man. Everyday.
Do not build temples to men... men will fail you. We cannot let men off the hook for moral failings today, because of what they did for us "yesterday." Always hold individuals to a standard, day by day. Encourage them to destroy themselves on the altar of sacrifice so that others might live and build upon their legacy. Flying too close to the sun has a price.