Not All Veterans Are Heroes: America’s Damaging Love of War Films, Part 2

Image by Romain Hiest from Pixabay. Color altered by the author.
This is the second of a mult-part series of articles about America’s love of war films and their role in shaping American society following 9/11. This installment examines the American perception of what it means to be a hero, and why our consumption of war films has limited this perception.

Read Part 1, here.

In part 1, I defined what I call the “veteran-brand,” which is a symptom of the civilian-military divide. Perhaps the easiest way to understand the veteran brand is as a virtue-signal that many people use to let others know that they are patriotic. However, the veteran-brand hinges on the idea that all veterans are heroes, and that the contributions of veterans to society eclipse the importance of those contributions made by civilians. This aspect of the veteran-brand is reinforced by the popularity of war and veteran-centric media. Many, if not all societies in the past have used narrative to perpetuate their ideal heroes, and those heroes have often been warriors. But philosopher/historian Scott LaBarge posits that our modern understanding of who is a hero is different from that of, say, the ancient Greeks. In contrast to the Greeks who could equally admire a person of questionable morality, a “bad” person, LaBarge wrote that for modern Americans, “Our heroes are symbols for us of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy.”[1] One scene in American Sniper provided a clear example of the qualities extolled by the veteran-brand. Chris Kyle’s father tells his son that there are three types of people in the world: “sheep,” who are mostly “good” people; “wolves” who want to hurt the sheep; and finally, “sheep dogs,” who are “blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock” and whose life purpose is to protect the sheep from the wolves.[2] In other words, the quality that those who subscribe to the veteran-brand most wish to possess is the quality of being a protector. A hero per the sheep-dog analogy is someone who is born with an altruistic sense that weak-but-good people are in danger and must be protected, and therefore heroes are the ones who make sacrifices in order to provide that protection. But a 2018 RAND study that was conducted in order to find out why Americans joined the Army suggested that a large portion of soldiers did not initially join for altruistic reasons. Though there was an overlap in all of the stated reasons for enlisting, the study found that 42 percent of soldiers enlisted in the military for “adventure and travel,” and 32 percent reported joining for the benefits such as healthcare and the GI Bill. Only 20 percent reported joining because they felt a “call to serve,” a mere nine percent out of “honor and respect.”[3] This contradicts the ideal set forth by the veteran-brand.

According to the veteran-brand, all veterans are heroes. Barring that a few American veterans have committed acts that should be counted as heroic, the term “hero” has become a catchall for any person who has ever worn a military uniform. Take, for example, the annual “Flag Field for Heroes” put on by the Nathan Hale Homestead museum in Coventry, Connecticut. People are encouraged to purchase a flag to be planted on the museum’s lawn “in honor of a veteran or serviceman in your life,”[4] thus giving these service members a temporary, cheap, elevated status. These kinds of events occur across the nation at various times of the year. Attempts to contest the heroic quality of American veterans put those who subscribe to the veteran-brand on the defense. Comedian Bill Burr wrote a joke about veterans that made a man in his audience angry, prompting the man to confront Burr and scold him during the show.

During an interview with Conan O’Brien, Burr said, “I was just saying that the guy who flies the fighter jet and has missiles shot at him, yes, that guy’s a hero. However, if you’re the guy that points in the direction that the plane takes off in…”[5] Burr reported that he duly performed the joke in front of an audience of veterans prior to bringing it to a general audience. According to Burr, the veterans liked the joke.[6] If one viewed Burr’s joke as a social experiment, then one could say that the experiment revealed that not all veterans associate their service—or the service of others–with heroism. The association is a fabrication of the veteran-brand.

American heroes are the people we choose to represent our nation. Yet we choose some decidedly non-heroic persons over emerging figures who might better fit the description of hero. In the next article we will look at two case studies: Caitlyn Jenner and Colin Kaepernick.

[1] Scott LaBarge, “Why Heroes are Important,” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

[2] American Sniper, DVD, directed by Peter Berg (Universal Pictures, 2013).

[3] Jared Keller, “The Top 5 Reasons Soldiers Really Join The Army, According To Junior Enlisteds,” Task and Purpose, May 14, 2018, https://taskandpurpose.com/5-reasons-soldiers-join-army.

[4] Windham Chamber, “Flag Field for Heroes at the Nathan Hale Homestead,” Connecticut Landmarks News, April 15, 2019.

[5] (Burr 2018)

[6] (Burr 2018)

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