A reader of Tom Rick's military affairs blog makes a good point about how contemporary society and media lavish the word "hero" on practically everyone in uniform, to the point where the meaning of the word and the concept of heroism is being seriously devalued.
The same reader makes the point that because only a tiny fraction of society's members join the military, and a smaller fraction of those actually see combat, the overuse of the word hero betrays a guilty conscience at the disconnect between society and military.
"Sadly, as Americans we have devalued the word 'hero' by applying it to merely the performance of one's responsibility, much like parents today overly praise their children for everyday accomplishments. Particularly, especially in the media the expression 'hero' seems generic and contains a disturbing element of pandering.
Today, there is a vast void between those that wear a uniform and go in harm's way and those that don't. We watch from afar as uneasy spectators as our countrymen suffer death and wounds of the flesh and mind for causes we often hold in doubt. So we revert to a hyperbole of gratitude that is seemingly harmless but in fact laced with insincerity."
I have heard similar points repeatedly of late and they ring true to me. While the quote above comes out of the US context, I would say that the same is true of the Canadian situation. Noah Richler, whose recent book What We Talk About When We Talk About War, makes much the same point when he notes that our rhetoric on Canada's recently concluded combat mission in Afghanistan belies the fact that less than 1% of the population, as deployed soldiers and their immediate families, were actually touched by that war (compared to 18% of the population in World War One. Afghanistan, Richler writes, "has not even slightly been felt by Canadians other than as that flattering, self-aggrandizing idea" which is reinforced by terms like "Highway of Heroes".
The Richler quote comes from a May 2 essay in The National Post, and I have not read the book yet, but plan to. While I disagree with some of what I've heard him say in interviews, I think Richler, like Ricks' readers, are on to something. I agree with them that the disconnect between North American elites and their all-volunteer militaries is becoming increasingly profound. Fewer and fewer sons and daughters of moneyed and privileged families choose military service, as witnessed by Mitt Romney's sons, who their dad claims serve America by serving his campaign rather than by serving in uniform. The rank and file of our volunteer forces come from disadvantaged and marginal parts of the country, as suggested by the claim, sometimes made by military members, that they are the real 1%. The 99% of society is content to outsource its wars to this small minority, in the same way that Victorian England fought its imperial wars with small armies of despised Tommies from the slums, augmented by colonial mercenary minorities from the British Isles and the Empire abroad. Meanwhile, the 99% adopts a sentimentalized rhetoric of heroism, sacrifice, and gratitude to the service of its troops that masks this social disparity.
Please don't get me wrong, for I am deeply humbled that men and women in uniform are seen as heroes. I know many in the CF who remember and would not return to the days, after Somalia, when they never wore their uniforms in public. I merely wish that there was more honesty in much of our talk about heroism and service. I can't help but think that true heroism and service, for the rich and for the poor alike, could be better measured by accepting without complaint the call to serve in the military, whether through a national service scheme or through conscription in time of war. That might make our talk of heroism more meaningful.