Sunday, January 5, 2020

Guest blog: No time for "heroes"

By Dr. Martin Cohen
(Lightly edited)

This will not be taken well by some of you, but I have to write this, perhaps now, before it becomes an offense for which I could be arrested (perhaps later this year). A message to members of our armed forces, a message to tell your children if they are in the armed forces, and a message for all of us to keep in mind in our responses to people in uniform - You are not a hero if you fight, kill, or risk your life, or even die in an unjust war of aggression; no, that makes you a criminal. You are not duty-bound or honor-bound to be a criminal, just because you signed up and wear a uniform. If you are old enough to vote, and old enough be to ordered to kill, then you have the ability to process what you are doing, and you are responsible for your own actions, no matter who ordered those actions or why. 
We essentially established this at the Nuremberg trials, and have demanded our own military ignore it as much as possible. I know this is hard, I have friends with children or other family in the military, I have had numerous students in the military, some still in. And it is particularly hard to write this, because I guess I may be called out on this by friends who served in Vietnam, but really, they are not exceptions to this. We need, at some point to draw the line between hero and dupe, between martyr and criminal. We tend, like teenage girls of the past, to be blinded by uniforms. (By the way, one of the reasons for the development of dress uniforms and non-battle related military trappings and insignia are to take those whose lives are expendable and make them feel special enough to embrace and find meaning as cannon fodder. When the Marines say they are looking for a few good men, they entice recruits with a carefully crafted myth of hyper-masculinity. This has traditionally been reinforced by a certain percentage of women being raised to respond to that myth that makes the man in the uniform particularly special.)
It is a myth that those of us who opposed the war spat on Vietnam vets when they returned. The myth persists, so much so that it has entered the consciousness of some of those vets as a false memory. In fact, many of us, putting aside the criminality of the war, honored the individual for what they had experienced, for what our government made them do. And we were more likely to work for them receiving proper benefits and VA psychiatric care (I eventually worked in clinical research with a number of Vietnam vets at a VA psychiatric hospital). They are not heroes, they are just real, human beings. Some have put it aside, some still suffer today because of what they had done. The "PTSD" expert I knew at the VA insisted it was all about having lived under risk, and while that is part of it, at least anecdotally I got a strong impression it was also often the result of doing and/or seeing unthinkable things that went against all they believed about human life and decency.
At some level, I think many of us understand this - there is no doubt that many German soldiers during WWII fought hard and courageously for their country. Some sacrificed themselves for their comrades or to advance their country's cause in the struggle. I cannot admire these acts as heroic, not just personally, because their country was literally murdering my relatives or that the same soldiers were trying to kill our fathers, but because the cause itself was by any sense of human decency, beyond defensible. In fact, one could (but I wouldn't) argue that somehow those young German men were far more trapped in a role beyond their control than any member of our military is today.
After thousands of years of warfare, it is time to say: NO MORE HEROES!

Martin Cohen is a friend and Anthropologist who teaches in the Los Angeles area.

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