The Real War Heroes

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The word hero is bandied about so often that it’s all but lost its meaning in the American lexicon. Virtually everyone is a hero; policemen, firefighters, and “first responders” are heroes, teachers, government workers, and other “public servants” are heroes, soldiers, sailors, marines, and drone operators, too, they’re all heroes. The result of declaring everyone heroic naturally devalues the word and we end up in a world where the true heroes are ignored, forgotten or never even considered in the first place. Virtually no one in the mainstream lauds the innovators, the ones who make civilization itself possible. And the businessmen and individual employees, the ones who slave day in and day out to satisfy their fellow man, they're never celebrated (except of course when the latter is pitted against the former to advance a particular agenda).

This is certainly the case in the military, perhaps more than any of the other categories mentioned above. In fact, the sense of ubiquitous heroism runs so deep that when my wife mailed me a t-shirt that sarcastically read “I’m a Hero,” the irony was lost on all but just a few of my friends. When I returned from my second deployment there were of course many signs welcoming home the “heroes,” but one in particular stuck out as exceptionally ridiculous, it read “I gave birth to a hero.”

Given this idolatry and misplaced reverence for soldiers, I thought it important to tell the story of a few actual heroes. These are men who, despite making the mistake of joining the military gang and allowing themselves to be used in that way, distinguished themselves, both on the battlefield and in garrison before and after deployments. Note that I’ve taken care to use other names in order to protect their privacy, but all other information is true and accurate, to the best of my knowledge.

The first man on the list of heroes is Specialist Davis. He was assigned to a mechanized infantry unit during the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, and carried a light machine gun. At one point during the push north, Davis’ platoon was clearing an area and came into contact with a dismounted Iraqi Army unit. Davis was ordered to open fire on the Iraqis as they retreated, but he refused. He said he wouldn’t murder retreating people. The courage it would have taken to stand up for the lives of those retreating cannot be overstated. Soldiers can be prosecuted under military law for refusing orders or “misbehaving” in front of enemy troops. Worse still, they’re isolated from the other soldiers, made to live and work in even less comfortable conditions, and humiliated publicly. Though not prosecuted formally, Davis was certainly punished for his decision not to mow down those Iraqis.

Number two on the list is Private Anderson, a deserter who fled the army just weeks before he was scheduled to deploy to Iraq in early 2005. Many suspected that he was acting out of cowardice, and were he not so weak-kneed, would have stayed to fight. Whether Anderson chose to flee from fear or for some other reason is irrelevant in my eyes. Regardless of his motives he was unwilling to participate in the war – which was certainly a dishonorable and inhumane endeavor – and this is all to the good. The fewer the individuals offering themselves up as sacrifices to the State and its wars the better. Last I heard, Anderson was living with friends of his mother, some anti-war activists who took him in when they heard he was on the lam. Though not as dramatic as Davis’ actions, Anderson assumed a fair amount of risk in leaving. Deserters can be executed under military law, though that doesn't happen anymore; the more likely outcome is some jail time, or worse, being sent off to war.

Specialist Lee exhibited the third case of heroism I’m aware of in my time in the army. He joined the military, for what particular purpose I have no idea, and quickly discovered he had made a mistake. (Oh, that more Specialist Lees would recognize what a terrible choice the military is). He eventually filed for status as a conscientious objector and was moved from the line, where he’d been an infantryman, to a position in the battalion headquarters where he worked in an administrative role and no longer carried a weapon. It was here that he stayed until his enlistment ended and he could leave the military. While not as radical as simply leaving without permission, formally objecting to war on moral grounds sends a powerful message. The conscientious objector, for the most part, denies his critics the ability to paint him as a coward the way deserters are when they dare to say no to war. As far as I know, Lee wasn’t publicly disparaged for his beliefs; though I’m sure many thought less of him for his principled opposition to war.

The final hero in this list is Specialist Kirk. He too found the military wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and wanted out as soon as we returned from Iraq. As far as I know he was never opposed morally to war or military service, but he nevertheless hated the environment. The bureaucratic nature of government, the ineptitude and slothfulness that so many rail against in places like the Post Office and the DMV is amplified a hundred times in the military. Tasks that should be remarkably simple, and in civilian life are, become depressingly complicated and needlessly tedious. This is due in part to the inane rules and regulations that dictate virtually every facet of military life; but it’s also the result of the military’s strict adherence to the Peter Principle and the attraction the military has on socially awkward and immature individuals. Kirk’s initial enlistment was for six years, meaning that by the time we got back he’d likely have to endure two more year-long deployments. His overall hatred for life in the military grew to the point where he decided using forbidden drugs as a means of being discharged was worthwhile. While I don’t support drug use in general, I also recognize his right to do so. He took an extended leave, unapproved of course, and tested positive for one or more drugs, repeating this cycle until about six months had passed and he was granted a discharge.

Each of these men is a hero, in that they didn’t blindly follow orders, stood up for the rights of others, and refused to participate in an immoral organization. They each used different methods for achieving their ends, but never violated anyone’s rights in the process, and likely helped to preserve human life, in at least one case. One thing these men did have in common was that they were all junior enlisted soldiers. It is indeed rare to see such behavior in higher ranking members of the military, although sometimes it does happen. For the most part, those who advance enjoy the lifestyle, either because they're sociopathic or too ignorant to see what's really going on.

There are exceptions though, as in the case of Sergeant James Circello, who wrote this pointed letter to the president and other figureheads of the State, denouncing their wars and refusing to "be the fool that enforces [U.S. foreign policy]." Another such refusal was made by First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, the only officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq. He believed the war to be illegal and immoral and, rather than be party to war crimes, resigned his commission. His opposition was not as steadfast, as he requested to be sent to Afghanistan, where he believed an invasion to be justified. But he didn't back down, even when threatened with legal action, including the possibility of jail time. He was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and eventually dismissed after his court martial was declared a mistrial.

I wish now that I’d left too, not boarded the plane and just went home. Better still would have been never joining the army in the first place. At least now that I've gone through it I know the truth. It was during my first deployment that I learned that war is bad policy. I saw it as too expensive, that it could only make things worse, that it would incite others to join forces in order to avenge the deaths of their loved ones and repel the invaders. In the struggle for hearts and minds I like to think of this as helping to change my mind about war. In my second deployment I saw war not only as bad policy, but as evil, morally bankrupt, and dehumanizing. I saw the terror in the eyes of a woman whose husband I helped abduct, and it bothered me in ways I had always repressed before. In this way, and others, my heart was changed about war.

The real heroes aren't those who take the most lives, who destroy the most property, or who never question the morality or legitimacy of a given policy. True heroism involves defending innocent life and standing up to protect fellow human beings. It means refusing to participate in violence and aggression, and it involves questioning – and openly challenging – the State and its wars.

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