Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The cult of heroism

Rosa Brooks in The Los Angeles Times has a good column on heroism. She argues that not only is the word so overused as to become devalued, but she also warns that it veers uncomfortably close to the language of fascism.

It's sure to piss some people off but is she really wrong when she writes: The empty rhetoric of heroism is everywhere these days. You know what I mean. Pat Tillman -- the former NFL star -- is "an American hero," apparently because he volunteered for duty along with several hundred thousand other people, then had the misfortune to be accidentally shot by his own side.

My grandfather was injured in Normandy during World War II and received two Purple Hearts. He was a hero to me because he was always there for me, not because he was unlucky enough to be shot. I respected him because of his conscious conduct over the almost two and a half decades that I knew him, not of an accidental misfortune of a single incident.

Brooks adds that while she respects the service of soldiers, it's a big mistake to mix up the idea of service -- or the idea of sacrifice and suffering -- with the idea of heroism.

Humanitarian aid workers, development workers and firefighters aren't part of the cult of 'heroism,' even though they make important contributions to humanity. Work that doesn't involve killing or destruction. And in those rare occasions when they are mentioned, it's a token gesture, thrown in there to appease the gods of political correctness. You don't see bumper stickers that read, "Support our firefighters." Aid workers don't get a mention every 5.1 seconds in a George W. Bush speech or place of pride at the Republican National Convention.

Why? Because this narrowly defined cult of 'heroism' is essential to maintaining support for American militarism. Every warrior is a hero. Every hero is a warrior. The only way to be publicly (and repeatedly) lauded as a hero is to wage war.

Where is the society that places at least as much value on those who build, heal and educate as those who kill, destroy and annihiliate? I'm not sure where such a society is, but sadly it's not here.

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