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Who’s Really Stealing Our Valor?

February 17th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Brian Williams lied about being shot down by enemy fire in Iraq. As a spokesperson for an organization that purports to provide factual representation of events, this indiscretion probably rightly cost him his job, at least for now. Of course, one must pay the price for lying, especially if caught, and with the social media environment being what it is, it is very difficult for a public figure not to get caught. But the problem here, I think, is bigger than a regrettable transgression. It tells us a lot about public culture in the United States.

The question that no one seems to be asking is why does Brian Williams want to be a war hero? Having attained such an elevated status in the eyes of millions of people, why is that not good enough? And why aspire to self-aggrandize by pretending military danger and prowess? At least part of the answer must be the mindless elevation of the military as heroes and protectors of our freedom.

I am a veteran. I am proud of my service. I was never in combat but I was in harm’s way: in the crosshairs of a Russian cruiser at the height of the Cold War. That last sentence really illustrates the issue. To be held in high regard one must have really been in the thick of the fighting. Being close to it or on the edge of it is good, but not quite. If I served during the time of the Vietnam War but I did not serve “in country,” I can’t identify myself as Vietnam vet. I have to be a “Vietnam-era vet.” That’s good, but not quite. There is something akin to a caste system that stratifies the honor you can receive from society based on your service. Why do you think there is such an issue with so-called “stolen valor,” pathetic attempts by insecure losers to claim unearned veteran status?

Veterans deserve to be proud of their service. Any person who puts on the uniform of the United States is literally placing their life at the service of the nation. Some may do it out of a sense of duty, some because they are lured with rewards, but in any case the risk is real. And so all of the benefits and deference they receive from the country are well-earned.

But what society at large is lifting up is not what these veterans are, nor what they actually risk, it is a media generated illusory image of American greatness. The public image of the veteran is more a reflection of ourselves than those who actually serve. It is no more accurate than the vilification of veterans during the Vietnam war. In this case it makes us feel confident in our international presence. If we can feel good about our soldiers then we can feel good about ourselves. If members of the military are unquestionably heroic then all they do must be too. And, by reflection, so are we.

In the big picture what this does is provide a framework for the misuse of American military power. If you criticize the mission you criticize those who carry it out. How dare you call into question the sacrifice of our brave heroes? Witness the recent public debate about the movie “American Sniper.” Public opinion rallied around the protagonist as heroic individual. Whether the United States had any business engaged in the mission he carried out was a question no one even considered.

Who can really blame Brian Williams for wanting to be a war hero? That is the American measure of greatness. But I don’t think it takes away from the valor and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform to ask whether those who command them and send them to the far flung regions of the earth to perform tasks that don’t really seem to protect us are rightly putting their lives at risk. If we truly want to honor them, we should insist that they be risked only to really protect us, not to be used instruments of endless, senseless, perhaps profit-driven war.

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