Does war make a hero?


author: marty grande-sherbert | op-ed editor


Heroes of war?

I don’t pretend to know the horrors of war. I have studied the causes and damages of wars, I know people who have been displaced by wars, I know people who fought in wars, and I know people whose lives fell apart because of what the experience of war did to them. I have seen enough of war to know that it is cruel, but not enough to judge a survivor of war to their face about their trauma. That is something I will, therefore, not do in the case of John McCain.

As much as I hope, should I have been born in the ‘50s-‘70s, that I would have protested what the U.S. military did to Vietnam, and as much as I do believe that those who dodged the draft in that time were doing their moral duty (before you interject, this obviously does not include Trump, who I think we all know had different reasons), I do recognize that McCain, like many other Americans in that war, experienced intensely traumatic violence beyond what anyone should. I have no desire to belittle that trauma, or to mock it, and I agree with many of McCain’s supporters in the opinion that tearing down the pain of a dead man has absolutely no moral value. I’m not interested in weighing in on whether or not John McCain was a “good person” or whether or not his life deserves to be remembered – I see nothing productive about that conversation.

That being said, acknowledging that the life of a survivor of war is a notable one is not the end of the issue as far as the discussion of McCain is concerned. As much as it is distasteful to belittle the dead, I still take issue with the dominant narrative of McCain’s life – that he was a bold American hero, that he represented what America (or any country, for that matter) should be. In a broader sense, I take issue with the leap we make from acknowledging the trauma of war to hailing every person (from our side of the conflict) who has ever fought in a war as a hero. This is an article about that phenomenon, not just about McCain. This is an invitation to, using the example of McCain, challenge on what grounds we call someone a patriot, and to challenge our assumptions of why patriotism is valuable to us.

I invite you to consider, first of all, that John McCain was not the only person to suffer traumatic violence in Vietnam. In fact, the trauma of that war was not even limited to its combatants. We only need to glance briefly at the massacre in My Lai, for example, to realize how Vietnamese civilians endured the same things we applaud McCain for surviving. If we are to say it was Vietnam that made McCain a hero, we have to wonder if calling his support of the war heroic calls into question our respect for those on the other side, victims of war crimes that every American soldier is likely to have committed or contributed to. Can one be a hero for surviving a war if that war also led to violent deaths of innocent people? Maybe one can still argue yes, but this is not the end of what we need to consider.

Beyond the military violence of the mid-1900s, McCain also participated in other wars, not as a combatant but as a politician. He voted and spoke to advance wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The Iraq war alone resulted in one million deaths. In these cases, where McCain was not a prisoner or a victim, but an organizer and bystander of military action, how does the title of hero hold up? Perhaps we consider it heroic to protect our country against foreign aggression – but what about protecting the no doubt many peaceful inhabitants of countries like Iraq whose lives were taken by America’s actions? Is that not the kind of consideration we would expect from a hero? I invite lovers of patriotism] to question their difference in reaction, depending on the familiarity of the people who die.

Memorably, McCain once responded to a question about military action against Iran by composing a parody of a Beach Boys Song (“Barbara Ann” become “Bomb Iran”). I can respect McCain’s experiences as a survivor while still knowing that such a response is devoid of any respect for the destruction war brings. Whatever heroism – however we each might define that term – John McCain exhibited in Vietnam, there was a break from that behaviour when he turned around and advocated for further violence in such a lighthearted manner. I believe it inappropriate to suggest people should learn anything from their trauma, but I am often surprised how easily people forgive the military for the damage they know it can do.

I know that McCain’s relationship to war is not the only aspect of his life people discuss, but when the focus of the conversation is heroism and patriotism, I see it to be the most telling. We so often associate military service with a love of country, which we in turn associate with good character. It seems that a hero is someone who involves themselves with violence in service of some particular cause, and I can admit that I have put people on pedestals with that same line of thinking.

This might lead us to forget, however, that heroe” are not the only ones involved with violence. The same violence that makes one person a hero and a patriot makes someone else, in the eyes of the same public, just one part of a body count. If one person traumatized by war is a hero, should they all be? Are we prepared to applaud as heroes the people on opposite sides of these conflicts who are likely equally strong of character but whose names and faces we don’t care to know? The fanfare around a “war hero” always makes me wonder what conclusions we would come to if we realized that not everyone on the other side of our walls is an enemy.

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