Soldiers on a pedestal

In its intention to right the wrongs against the returning Vietnam veteran in the ’70s, has the country gone overboard in saluting the soldier in 2014?

Most every sports team now makes a military salute a nightly tradition, for example. Is it too much? Is it sincere?

Writing in the Boston Globe, a Brown University professor says it is. It conveys the notion that soldiers are “our only protectors.”

Stephen Kinzer writes “we are mature enough to know that a banker’s suit does not always reflect honesty and that a cleric’s robe may not cloak a pure soul. Yet we readily believe that the olive-green uniform automatically raises its wearer to saintly status.”

To admire soldiers who have performed acts of bravery is fully justified. Not all combat heroes, however, are eager to stand before thousands of people and accept the honor they deserve. If we truly want to promote a positive form of hero-worship, we should not only abandon the idea that uniforms automatically transform ordinary people into giants. We should also recognize the other giants who protect and defend our society.

Our communities are full of everyday heroes. These are the nurses, schoolteachers, addiction counsellors, community organizers, social workers, coaches, probation officers, and other civilians who struggle to keep Americans from slipping toward despair, sickness, or violence. They guide people away from hopelessness and toward productive lives. Society collapses without these people. Yet we rarely give them the chance to acknowledge the gratitude of cheering multitudes. That honor is reserved for those whose individual merit may be limited to their choice — perhaps motivated by a variety of factors — to put on a uniform.

When soldiers were part of society, people recognized them as ordinary human beings. Now, with the emergence of the all-volunteer army, society has transferred the burden of war to a small, self-contained caste cut off from the American mainstream. This distance allows civilians to develop extravagant fantasies about soldiers that feed the militarist impulse. If we believe our soldiers are superheroes, it makes sense to send them to faraway battlefields to solve our perceived problems in the world. That is why, in this era of seemingly endless war, politicians, the defense industry, and even big-time sports compete with each other to promote hero-worship of soldiers and veterans.

He calls the gratitude shown soldiers at ballgames “phony.”

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