By Andrew Eckhous, Columnist
Published March 12, 2013
To our brave men and women fighting overseas to protect our freedoms, we salute you. All of you are true American heroes, and our democracy would not be possible without your sacrifices.
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And we do salute them. It seems as if at every sporting event, political rally and every other chance we get, we pay tribute to our countrymen in uniform around the globe. It’s nothing more than a gesture from the protected to the protectors, an outpouring of gratitude for all for our inalienable rights, like $9.75 ballpark beers and the endless onslaught of Adam Sandler comedies. All in all, it’s just another harmless affirmation that we are on the side of right, regardless of what is actually happening abroad.
But are we to assume that each and every soldier is a hero? Must I believe that only the noblest Americans enlist in the military and tote machine guns through the deserts of far-off countries? Absolutely not.
I don’t believe that all soldiers are heroes. When a person enlists in a combat position, it doesn’t automatically bequeath upon them the title of “hero.” Rather, it puts the onus on that man or woman to be an exemplary human being, especially to make up for the fact that their job may be to kill. Though a soldier’s job can involve killing and maiming, the idealistic American public prefers the image of them building houses and handing out candy bars — in other words, Norman Rockwell’s Afghanistan.
If I sound a bit disenchanted, that’s because I am. Questioning the government or anyone employed by it seemed unnecessary when I was younger. We’re the United States; we’re the best, right? Unfortunately, as my knowledge of American history grew, so did my doubt. I learned about mass killings of Native Americans, American-backed dictators in South America and the murder of civilians in Vietnam. These affronts to humanity, coupled with the international condemnation of America’s Iraq War policies, created an atmosphere where my preconceptions violently collided with reality.
Then, last year, I watched an ex-Marine’s account of the atrocities he committed during his time in Iraq. From shooting an innocent man “in front of his friend and his father” and watching his family drag him away, to soldiers being promised extra time off by their superiors if they were the first to stab a man to death, the video shocked and disillusioned me. If even our soldiers — supposedly heroic citizens — were capable of acts such as these, what did that say about the rest of our citizenry?
Starting on that day I began to cringe whenever I heard a politician whoop the crowd into a quiet frenzy with his tribute to “our heroes overseas.” The former rote cheering and muscle memory clapping came a little slower now, and blindly labeling all American soldiers “heroic” started to seem irresponsible to me.
But for those who think this makes me a turncoat or a traitor, you are wrong. I hold my country to a higher standard — as we all should — and I’m a strong believer in what America can stand for. It seems patriotism and American exceptionalism have become parodies of themselves. But they remain a part of our country’s ethos and we have a duty to be the best we can be. What does that mean for our foreign policy? Nothing, except that when our politicians send American boys into a foreign country, whether for legitimate reasons or not, we cannot allow leniency for gross transgressions.
When a soldier kills 16 Afghanis in a drunken rampage, he is not a hero. And when a soldier kills an innocent man in front of his friend and his father, he is not a hero, even if he later apologizes for it.
Heroic soldiers exist, and I like to think that they make up the majority of our armed forces. There are men who die protecting innocent people, both Americans and not. There are men who improve the lives of people around the world. And there are men that believe so deeply in the values and ideals immortalized in our Constitution that they are willing to die for them.
I’m thankful that I live in a country where I can voice these opinions publicly without fear of persecution, and I know much of that comes from the sacrifices of our soldiers. But we must hold them to the same standards as every other American. We can respect and salute our soldiers and military, but we must be cognizant of their actions at all times. When someone has a gun and unfettered protection, their actions resound even more loudly — for better or for worse.
Andrew Eckhous can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.