Are all soldiers America’s heroes?

During the summer, I started watching Netflix’s original animated series Bojack Horseman. Though I may have begun the show as a means of distracting my mind from the raging hangover that only Oakland’s Kona Club Scorpion Bowls can impart, I was quickly drawn into the dark humor and pressing observations that underlie the show. Not to mention the show’s cast includes numerous human-like animals. I’ll pause while you watch the first episode on Netflix.

As Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote, one of its greatest attributes is to “[present] big ideas without having to commit to them.” One of the episodes that best exemplifies that idea is the second episode, entitled “Bojack Hates the Troops.” In the episode, the eponymous character (Will Arnett), a washed up 90s sitcom actor/horse, goes to the grocery store and finds a box of muffins atop an apple bin. Upon grabbing them, a seal named Neal McBeal (Patton Oswald) tells Bojack he had dibs on the muffins. Annoyed by this logic and feeling spiteful, Bojack defiantly buys the muffins and promptly eats them.

At home, Bojack turns on the TV to MSNBSea to find Neal McBeal (who is, in fact, a Navy Seal) on a diatribe about Bojack’s disrespect for the troops. Irritated, Bojack joins the show and in doing so, unknowingly steps onto the unpopular side of a longstanding debate: are the troops heroes?

As Neal McBeal says he helped make the world safer, Bojack disagrees, prompting the host to ask, “Well surely even you think the troops are heroes?” to which Bojack responds, “I don’t think that. Sure, some of the troops are heroes, but not all of them. A lot of the troops are jerks, and giving a jerk a gun isn’t going to make them a hero.”

For most of our lives, U.S. troops have been ever-present in world conflicts. After all, only four of the past 25 years have gone by without a formal U.S. military intervention. Many Americans would not say this is necessarily bad though. As the global hegemon, many Americans believe that our troops, vested with the ideals of freedom, are a force for unreserved good, one that aids nations in their fight against tyrannical evil. In several cases, this is true. Since 1990, our troops have helped stop genocidal regimes, brought humanitarian aid to war torn nations, and helped cripple terror organizations that murdered our civilians and those of our allies.

Since the attacks on September 11th, it has become increasingly common to refer to anyone in uniform as an “American hero.” From politicians to bumper stickers, the hero rhetoric has become an orthodox when referring to our troops. However, does this repetition make the statement true? Are our troops heroes?

According to the Merriam-Webster, a hero is someone “distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility, [and] fortitude.” While I would also say that a hero is someone who behaves in a selfless manner, who takes on personal risk and sacrifice, I would say that this definition is cheapened by using it all inclusively. The majority of humans are not heroes.

A hero, by definition is “distinguished,” meaning only a select few can wear this honorable title justly. Do we expect to believe that class of citizens has been concentrated into the roughly 1,369,532 men and women who form our armed forces? Statistically, I would call that impossible.

But, of course, the term hero is used much more broadly. These are fellow citizens who have decided to sacrifice the ability to see their families for months on end while also putting themselves in harm’s way to protect our ideals.  This is surely noble indeed. But heroic? Not all of these people are saving children from burning buildings or foiling terrorist plots. One could take the more holistic view that even if some of the soldiers are merely supportive (cooks, mechanics, etc.), the soldiers who are heroic could not have done their job without them. This is true, and those troops are noble, but the idea of calling them heroes cheapens—if not degrades—the definition of what a hero is.

Now you may be thinking, well, Jake, you pussyfooting, commie, Benedict Arnold motherf**ker, what’s wrong with using an umbrella term? That’s a very eloquent question and I will tell you. Calling all the troops heroes not only damages the esteem of the ones who we truly wish to honor, but also turns the word into political rhetoric. While wars are a necessary evil in the realm of international relations, that does not mean we should forget the brutalizing effects it leaves.

By creating an army of heroes, we become blinded to the cruelties that happen all too often in these war zones. By calling our troops heroes, we play down Abu Ghraib and My Lai. When you think of America’s heroes, you picture a handful of Marines raising a flag on Iwo Jima, rather than the “heroes” who have committed unspeakable atrocities.

I doubt everyone reading this agrees with this conclusion, but that does not mean I am trying to disparage our troops. I believe the U.S. military has and will continue to be a force for good. Our uniformed men and women have made great sacrifices to serve our country. However, this entire debate makes me think of a line from a favorite comedian of mine, Jon Mulaney.

In one of his specials, he’s talking about the New York Post’s use of vocabulary. In their headlines, they often use the word “hero,” which Mulaney explains the Newspaper uses it to describe “men who do their job. Like, [he] read a piece a few days ago, ‘Hero Garbage Man takes out Trash.’ Well… yeah.” Not to conflate the dangers of garbage men and soldiers, but in some ways it speaks volumes. Being a soldier is a job. A noble job, but only heroic actions by the individual can make the job heroic.

I thank the troops for their service and while you may not be a hero in my book, I know that I am indebted to the majority of you for making the world a better place.

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