Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Heroic Repression

Recently I have been thinking about American culture around military issues these last six Punchbowl WWII Memorialyears since the beginning of combat operations in Iraq. Specifically, I have been thinking about what it means to be a hero, and why some segments of American culture have attempted to make “heroes” of every single young man and woman who has served in combat operations in Iraq.

I agree with the commonly understood sentiment that many people have when they call one of these returning combat veterans a “hero”… but I do not believe we have thought through the implications of what that labeling means. I do not believe we as a society have consciously thought about why it is important to some segments of our society that they be “heroes”.

These young men and women have, on the overwhelming whole, served with honor and distinction in one of the most difficult conflicts that this nation has ever chosen involvement in. Their families have been through trials and tribulations the likes of which no military families in the history of our nation have ever faced (stop-loss, repeated deployments, the immediacy of the battlefield through modern communications, etc.) On the overwhelming whole, our military (the tool, not the policy that uses the tool) have performed admirably and well. Fiction writer, Korea Veteran, and military theorist Jerry Pournelle says that all soldiers can ever hope to do is to buy time… and our military has bought time. Time for politicians and policy makers to find a better solution.

But is such service enough for them to be defined as Heroes? If not, then why has that term been so insisted on by certain segments of our society?

One ministerial supervisor of mine noticed that I am very calculating in my use of words. Though there may be a lot of them, I tend to be quite precise in the choices of words that I use. Though we grant words their power, there can be no doubt that the choice of words and the control of their meanings are some of the greatest exercises of power that humans embark upon.

I believe that society is trying to protect itself from the reality of our responsibility to these young women and men who have served by calling them heroes. I believe that our society is attempting to frame their experiences in nice, safe, padded boxes that cannot challenge our underlying assumptions about ourselves and our culture by calling them heroes. I believe that calling these young men and women, who have served with honor and deep distinction, calling them heroes is actually a form of very subtle and insidious form of repression.

Why? Because “Heroes” don’t bleed. “Heroes” don’t cry.

The myth of the American Hero is as old as our nation. It is the person who charges into danger to defend others, and who comes from that experience either stronger or dead. Either way, their wounds don’t matter… they are either John Wayne or resting in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We demand our living heroes be larger than life… a demand that almost none of them ever live up to. I am the great-grandson of the mistress of one of these American Heroes.

When we call a returning combat veteran a hero, we set up for them a myth of who they are supposed to be that does not easily allow for them to show and share their pain. That myth perpetuates the “suck it up and drive on” mentality that is a significant part of why “combat stress” is taking such a toll upon our military forces (and not incidentally upon the lives of tens of thousands of servicemembers and their families). It sets up an insidious psychological and spiritual paradox, in that everyone is telling this person they are a hero, but the circumstances that word creates brings them to an internal questioning of whether their service was even worthwhile and honorable. Soldiers and their families become afraid of admitting they need help, because admitting that would seem “unheroic”.

Trying to live up to the Hero Myth that we are emplacing upon these young women and men causes them to attempt to stuff their emotions and experiences deep into little boxes in their souls. You might be able to do that with things such a grief and loss and remain functional… but the complexity of combat stress seems to resist staying in such little internal boxes… and even if it did, it would not be a way to spiritual and psychological health.

So, why do we do this to our returning warriors? Why do we really call them heroes? We do it to protect our society from their experiences, not to honor them. We do it hoping that if they keep their experiences bottled up, then we as a culture do not have to face the realities of war. I do not think this will succeed in the long run… there are too many young men and women coming back with physical reminders of the trauma of combat for us to just pretend such trauma never happened.

Not heroes… warriors. Soldiers. Citizens. Humans. Let’s allow them to cry and bleed, and let us cry and bleed with them.

Yours in Faith,


4 Thoughts on “Heroic Repression

  1. Excellent “sermon” David.

    And I say that in my capacity aka role aka my chosen fate as that Transcendentalist Super Hero of the U*U World The Emerson Avenger. 😉

    “Though there may be a lot of them, I tend to be quite precise in the choices of words that I use.”

    That makes two of us.

    “Though we grant words their power, there can be no doubt that the choice of words and the control of their meanings are some of the greatest exercises of power that humans embark upon.”

    Needless to say, I agree and am very well acquainted with how the choice of words, and the control of their meanings, are indeed some of the greatest exercises of power that humans embark upon. When you have nothing better to do you might want to (re)read George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and The English Language‘. Even if you have already read it it is always worth rereading to as a “refresher course”. Indeed I think that I will reread it again myself today.


    Robin Edgar aka The Emerson Avenger

  2. Patrick McLaughlin on Saturday March 21, 2009 at 11:03 +0000 said:

    You’re right, David. It’s not the only reason, but putting people on pedestals and telling them how Wonderful Their Pedestal is tends to be a trap, no matter what the pedestal is labeled. Anyone who’s ever found themselves on one, for whatever reason, discovers that it is in fact Procrustes’ Bed. Pieces–significant pieces, important pieces–of human beings don’t fit on that pedestal. Instead of repressing them, putting someone on a pedestal coopts them into repressing themselves, and tempts others into.

    Frankly, its also cheapened the word hero.

    Serving in any capacity, anywhere, with honor and distinction deserves recognition and gratitude. It’s not heroic.

    It’s served the politics of one group as well. Not only does it permit putting each service member onto a pedestal that subtly silences and dehumanizes them, it serves to mythologize the policy they served as part of the military tool in use. Heroes, after all, engage in noble and heroic things and do good; that’s the way it works, no?

    I look back to my grandfather, who volunteered to fly for the Canadians before the US entered WWII, and then was transferred to the US forces, and continued flying through the war–a fighter pilot. His medals weren’t on display, and the indications of his service in my grandparents’ home… well, I don’t recall any, as a child, and I suspect they’d have caught my attention. But my uncle has them, and has had them looked at when getting them prepared for display. There’s no doubt that my grandfather was a very fine combat pilot. But it’s equally clear that he didn’t see it as heroic.

    Both Lee and Sherman made the point that war–combat–is a terrible, terrible thing. Labeling those who’ve been in the belly of that demon heroes paints it in glory, when the truth I’ve heard from any number of veterans is that its wonders are survival and bonds with those one fought with.

    “Hero” steals from the fundamental decency and goodness of the vast majority of human beings, who frequently do good things, to laud things done by common people, usually in moments when there’s no time to think, merely to act, to do what they know is right. “Hero” bleeds humanity. And then it victimizes those who get caught in its limelight, asking–expecting, insisting–that they be more than they are, more than we are, good, bad, confused, conflicted.

    It makes false idols of the living, trapping them within. It denies them humanity now, and turns them into monodimensional plaster saints when they’re gone. (Saint, incidentally, is another word that’s used for related purposes).

  3. It’s ok to put Veterans on pedestals. A hero is an example of behavior we pass on to our children. Veterans whether combat or not are worthy examples of service. A striking comparison to the selfish behavior among AIG execs who managed to get that exemption on their bonuses into the stimulus bill.

    I used to have lunch with the Chaplain in the Combat Hospital in Baghdad and would talk with him about some of his programs for stress among troops. He seemed awfully tired one day and I told him it was important to take care of himself. That his work would take something out of him. He said his job was nothing compared to won’t the kids on the line were taking.

    So must heros decline the pedestals and you don’t hear the word mentioned much among them but they’re heros none the less. They leave stories I will share with my grand kids, like this one…. worth more than any bonus.

  4. Bill,

    I’m trying to hit on another point… not whether or not these young men and women have done heroic things… but rather what is the need of the rest of us to name them heros? What is our need to define them as such…

    Frank Herbert wrote an epitaph, that I will change slightly…

    Here lies a toppled Hero,
    His fall was not a small one.
    We did but build his pedestal,
    A narrow and a tall one.

    I think there is something deeper at work in this, something that has very little to do with these individual men and women and anything they might have done. There is a societal norm that is being ignored here, and I’m trying to shine a little light on it.

    I think soldiers know that when someone calls them a “Hero” in the airport or at a restaurant, that says alot more about the person making that statement than the soldier. As you say, soldiers dont use that language much themselves. In fact, the only time’s I’ve been called a hero by a fellow soldier, it was always an insult.

    “What in the hell do you think you are doing there, Heeee-row?!?” as a former Drill Sergeant liked to say. I remember another fellow soldier defining a hero as someone who gets his buddies killed.

    My point, at its core is this… when we define all soldiers as heros, we are doing that for internal reasons for ourselves, not for them. I think that internal reason is a form of protection.

    Thank you for the engagement on this one… I know its a controversial idea.

    Yours in Faith,


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