The discussion of the meaning of the Confederate flag has called attention to the crucial distinction between bravery and heroism.
Confederate soldiers were famously brave fighters; but it was bravery in the service of racism and slavery. If it was heroism, it was heroism to those who wanted to continue that racist slavery- based way of life.
You can’t separate the bravery from what the bravery was employed in doing.
Are we now ready to apply that understanding to recent American wars?
There is no reason to think that the bravery quotient of young soldiers declined between World War Two and the war in Vietnam. But during the latter, troubled conflict bravery and heroism parted ways. Many of the brave returning from the war in Vietnam were not greeted as heroes. The reason of course is that it had become widely considered a bad war. Not just that we couldn’t win it, but that, given our motives and the nature of the conflict (as depicted afterwards in movies such as “Apocalypse Now” ) we shouldn’t win it. Bravery had become compromised.
Similarly, the motives and morality of our side in the dragged-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been widely called into question (the “weapons of mass destruction” deception to get it going, the role of Haliburton, the disclosures of torture). But it’s a terrible thing to have to admit that sacrifices–death, injury, PTSD, etc.–made in a war have been “in vain.” So in an effort to reverse the treatment of Vietnam vets, there has been an almost strident insistence on declaring those doing the work of this war we don’t want fought to be heroes anyway. (They are heroes, they are, they are!)
The majority of Americans have not approved the wars; but it would seem that the majority of Americans think those who have fought and are fighting the wars should be considered heroes.
What about the purely patriotic motive? We hear from young soldiers as they leave for war the noble sentiment that they are proud to be fighting for their country. But “My country, right or wrong” doesn’t cut it. We seem as a culture to have matured beyond that. (Confederate soldiers of course were patriotic for the rebellious Confederacy.)
Soldiers drafted into war are not therefore heroes but they get a certain amount of sympathy as tragic victims of circumstances beyond their control. We may even have pity on write an essay for me the German youth lost in World War Two, swept up into circumstances beyond their control. (Perhaps less sympathy if we imagine them inspired by anti-semitic ideas as they fight.) Certainly they do not get the blame we heap on the nazi leaders.
In the post-draft period young volunteers perhaps deserve less sympathy, not more, than those drafted into the Vietnam War. Young though they are, they should be held more responsible for their decision to volunteer. It is not at all clear that we could have fought our recent, controversial wars if a draft had been required . It is volunteers who have made possible these widely disapproved wars, expensive in so many ways.
We need to get clear and encourage our children to get clear about this distinction between bravery and heroism. You can give yourself credit for being a hero when you fight for a cause you deeply believe in. But if you want to be considered a hero by others, it has to be a cause that your fellow citizens in general believe to be a worthy one.
Otherwise it’s not heroism. Tragedy is closer to the mark.