TIME Religion

Pacifism Does Not Honor Veterans

It’s easy to fire rhetorical darts at wars. It’s much more complicated to pursue the best policies that will ensure security for our nation.

What is the best way to remember America’s veterans, OUR veterans, and the wars in which they served?

In his Memorial Day column “The Questions We Don’t Ask on Memorial Day,” Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a prominent liberal religious advocacy group, reflects on the anguish of Americans who have lost loved ones to war. He adds: “I also wonder why nobody raises the questions about why all these sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, dads and moms–all these best of friends–had to die in those wars.” And he asks: “So why can’t we ask if these wars were right or wrong, worth the terrible sacrifices, or what we have learned from the wars? What was gained or lost? Who decided to go to war? And why do their families often bear the least consequences for the war decisions?”

Wallis admits these questions anger some and imply disrespect for veterans. But he insists that “to raise the hard questions of why wars were decided and who decided them is actually a way to respect those who paid such a heavy price and perhaps would prevent more such horrible human costs.” He recalls the Vietnam War as the “war in my youth,” which “was based on lies and was exposed as a political and moral mistake, but went on even after we knew it was wrong and destined for disaster,” and “violated our nation’s best values and religious convictions.”

Iraq was another war “based on lies,” Wallis asserts, and “morally compounded by being a war over oil.” And he describes the Afghanistan War as having been launched to “bring those who attacked us to justice, became the longest war in our history, again without honest answers to what we really have accomplished.” He laments that “war has become such a business in America, whose beneficiaries are not the people we remember on Memorial Day,” and whose “victims,” i.e. those who served in the armed forces, are disproportionately the poor.

What Wallis does not mention is that he is a pacifist who opposes all war. Pacifism has a long, reputable history within Christianity, although it has always been a small minority view. He does not mention veterans from the Korean War or World War II, although he must similarly disapprove of those wars.

But pacifists, especially if they are Christians, in their faithful witness, should not distort history or malign the traditional majority of their faith who affirm the justice of some wars. What was the “lie” behind the Iraq War? Lies are deliberate untruths, but almost no one doubted that Saddam Hussein had deployable chemical weapons. Opponents of that war like Wallis never explained their own alternative to handling the murderous Saddam, nor how the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as hosts to the al Qaeda, could be displaced peacefully.

As to Vietnam, more died in the subsequent “peace” of Communist conquest in Southeast Asia than during the previous 20 years of war. Many war opponents glamorized those conquerors without acknowledging their murder and repression.

All wars illustrate humanity’s intrinsic sinfulness, for which religion ideally offers redemption and moral uplift. But in our fallen world, with its dictators, aspiring conquerors and terrorists, every lawful government is divinely ordained, as Christians and most people of faith agree, to defend the innocent and to pursue approximate justice, however imperfectly. It’s easy to fire rhetorical darts at wars and the always flawed leaders who lead our nation into them. For those with real responsibility, it’s much more complicated to pursue the best policies that will ensure security for our nation and an at least incrementally more just world.

The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Vietnam, Korea, World War II and others across history had noble intent and, like all wars, had their share of tragic consequences. Even “good” wars are filled with suffering by the innocent. Wars are morally justified only when the alternatives are even worse.

Veterans in America’s wars, whether the volunteers of the last 40 years, or the draftees of earlier decades, were not “victims.” They were and are Americans who sacrificially served their country. They should be honored, not romanticized, nor condescended to.

Wallis suggests Memorial Day as a time for asking “hard questions about our wars, what we have learned, and whether such painful losses are truly worth the terrible cost.” Perhaps those questions should also include asking what the world might look like absent the service of America’s veterans and the willingness of America to resist aggression and tyranny.

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. He is author of Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century.

TIME

Pictures of the Week: May 23 – May 30

From the Santa Barbara drive-by shootings and Ukrainian presidential elections, to martial law in Thailand and Kim and Kanye’s wedding extravaganza, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

 

 

TIME Religion

The Questions We Don’t Ask on Memorial Day

Why can’t we ask if these wars were right or wrong, worth the terrible sacrifices, or what we have learned from them?

Monday was Memorial Day, full of family trips and events, lots of picnics and barbecues with friends and neighbors, and a national day off from school and work. For us it was the Northwest Little League All Star game here at Friendship Field in Washington D.C., a family tradition for many years. My wife Joy, the Commissioner, organized the game day, including a wonderful picnic on a glorious baseball day for players, parents, relatives, and many fans–with 300 hotdogs!

It was also a day to remember all the people who have died in America’s wars. For the families of those war victims and so many of their fellow veterans it was a day of remembering and mourning. In the quiet moments of listening to the national anthem while looking at the American flag, our little baseball crowd with hats off might have been thinking about the meaning of the national holiday. But right afterward it was “Play Ball.”

On Memorial Days I always end up listening to the many stories from the families who lost their most beloved ones and from the veterans whose eyes still tear up when they recall their dearest buddies lost on battlefields far away. The emotion and pain always moves me. And watching all the messages of veterans’ organizations, you also see the incredible pain of those who came back from war with injuries and memories that still afflict their bodies, minds, and hearts. But I also wonder why nobody raises the questions about why all these sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, dads and moms–all these best of friends–had to die in those wars.

So why can’t we ask if these wars were right or wrong, worth the terrible sacrifices, or what we have learned from the wars? What was gained or lost? Who decided to go to war? And why do their families often bear the least consequences for the war decisions?

These are very hard questions, and people get angry when they are raised as some already are in reading this. Some will say it disrespects those who have suffered and died. But to raise the hard questions of why wars were decided and who decided them is actually a way to respect those who paid such a heavy price and perhaps would prevent more such horrible human costs.

I almost never hear veterans speak about the merits of their war, or its cause or purpose, or the strategies and ideologies behind the decisions to go to war. They talk about their friends, their brothers and sisters, their “family” who they lost on the battlefield. And the families of lost servicemen and women talk about how their loss was so devastating and life-changing. Hardly any of the Memorial Day testimonies are to the war; they are to the war victims.

The war in my youth was the Vietnam War and I still hardly ever go to the Vietnam Memorial. The few times I’ve gone there, I felt enormous pain. My generation’s names are etched on that long black wall, and when I read and touch them I feel overwhelmed with grief.

The Vietnam War was based on lies and was exposed as a political and moral mistake, but went on even after we knew it was wrong and destined for disaster. Vietnam’s American casualties were disproportionately lower-income and racial minorities. This war sank into tactics that killed many innocents while damaging the souls of our own soldiers. Vietnam violated our nation’s best values and religious convictions, but even then many were angry when leaders like Dr. King asked hard questions about war.

Iraq was another war based on lies, and morally compounded by being a war over oil. Was this a war of necessity or choice? Again, the casualties were significantly lower-income people and racial minorities who volunteered for the military hoping for future opportunities they didn’t have. Only some brave souls questioned why so few were asked to bear the terrible costs while the rest of the nation went on with life as usual. Afghanistan, begun to bring those who attacked us to justice, became the longest war in our history, again without honest answers to what we really have accomplished.

War has become such a business in America, whose beneficiaries are not the people we remember on Memorial Day. The veterans we honored yesterday are not even receiving adequate care when they come home and are being used as political pawns, as the latest Veterans Administration scandal reveals.

As we remember those who died serving our country, Memorial Day should also be a day when we ask the hard questions about our wars, what we have learned, and whether such painful losses are truly worth the terrible cost.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

TIME White House

Obama Marks Memorial Day With Call for Better Veteran Care

Barack Obama Veterans Memorial Day
U.S. President Barack Obama and Major General Jeffrey Buchanan participate in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. on May 26, 2014. Drew Angerer—EPA

Obama, whose administration is currently investigating allegations that Veterans Affairs facilities delayed care for needy veterans, said better support was needed for those who had fought for their country

President Barack Obama paid tribute to America’s fallen members of the armed forces at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Monday to mark the Memorial Day holiday.

Obama, who returned hours earlier from a surprise visit to troops in Afghanistan, pledged again to end the war there by the end of the year and called for better support for America’s veterans, a nod to the recent troubles that have plagued the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has faced calls to resign since it emerged that VA medical facilities had reportedly falsified records to cover up long waits for care, was in attendance.

“We must do more to keep faith with our veterans and their families,” the President said. Those who had fought for their country, he added, must “get the care and benefits they’ve earned and deserve.”

Obama stopped short of directly addressing the issue, but in an interview airing Monday afternoon with CNN, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the idea of veterans on secret waiting lists being denied care “makes me sick to my stomach.”

“Because it is a clear responsibility we have as a country, as a people, to take care of these men and women and their families who sacrificed so much,” said Hagel, who still backs Shinseki. “Let’s see what happened, why it happened, how it happened. Then we’ve got to fix it.”

At Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, Obama also repeated his statement made in Afghanistan on Sunday that the U.S. was at a “pivotal moment” in Afghanistan, reiterating his pledge to pull out most troops by the end of the year.

“By the end of this year, our war in Afghanistan will finally come to an end,” he said.

Obama spoke at Arlington on its 150th anniversary, and harked back to its creation amid the Civil War.

“We declared upon this hill a final resting place for those willing to lay down their lives for the country they loved,” he said.

TIME Holidays

7 Things You Didn’t Know About Memorial Day

492647469
Getty Images

Memorial Day is not all sunshine and hot dogs — it's a day for remembrance. Here, TIME presents some little-known facts about the start-of-summer holiday

As we noted two years ago, Memorial Day isn’t just an excuse to take a long weekend and loaf around eating grilled meats — although those are certainly among the reasons to love the holiday. So before you head out to your barbecues and pool parties, here are some facts about everybody’s favorite summer kick-off holiday.

1. It was originally called Decoration Day

To honor the deceased, soldiers would decorate graves of their fallen comrades with flowers, flags and wreaths. Hence Decoration Day. Although Memorial Day became its official title in the 1880s, the holiday wouldn’t legally become Memorial Day until 1967.

2. It wasn’t always celebrated the last Monday of May

After the Civil War, General John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, called for a holiday commemorating fallen soldiers to be observed every May 30. But due to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which took effect in 1971, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday of May to ensure long weekends. Some groups, like the veterans’ organization American Legion, have been working to restore the original date to set the day apart and pay proper tribute to the servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives defending the nation.

3. It’s legally required to observe a National Moment of Remembrance

In December 2000, Congress passed a law requiring Americans to pause at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day to remember and honor the fallen. But this doesn’t appear to be common knowledge, or if it is, by 3 p.m. most people seem to be too deep into a hot dog-induced food coma to officially observe the moment.

4. James A. Garfield delivered a rather lengthy speech at the first Memorial Day ceremony

Of course then it was still called Decoration Day, and at the time, Garfield was a Civil War General and Republican Congressman, not yet a President. On May 30, 1868, he addressed the several thousand people gathered at Arlington National Cemetery. “If silence is ever golden,” Garfield said, “it must be beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung.”

5. Several states observe Confederate Memorial Day

In addition to the national holiday, nine states officially set aside a day to honor those who died fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War: Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia. The days vary, but only Virginia observes Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of May, in accordance with the federal observance of Memorial Day.

6. Waterloo, New York is considered the birthplace of Memorial Day

According to the town’s website, in 1966 Congress unanimously passed a resolution to officially recognize Waterloo as the birthplace of the holiday. However, it remains a contentious debate, with other towns, like Boalsburg, Pa., claiming the title of “Birthplace of Memorial Day” as well.

7. More than 36 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home this Memorial Day

At least, according to AAA estimates. That’s the highest total since the recession.

TIME World

Memorial Day, Remembrance Sunday and Armed Forces Day: How 9 Other Countries Remember Their Fallen Troops

Fields Of Remembrance Poppies Ahead of Sunday's Service
Crosses with Remembrance Poppies, worn during Remembrance Day in Britain. Cate Gillon—Getty Images

As America observes Memorial Day, here’s how other countries around the world honor their fallen.

Americans remember the men and women of its armed forces who have died in service every year on Memorial Day, always the last Monday in May. Heralding the beginning of summer in the U.S., Memorial Day is an official national holiday that has its roots in the memorials for fallen soldiers in after the American Civil War, still the country’s deadliest conflict.

In other countries around the world, Memorial Day-style observances are rooted in an even deadlier fight — The First World War. World War I, which began a hundred years ago and became one of the deadliest conflicts in history, spawned national memorials throughout the British Commonwealth and elsewhere (in the U.S., the end of the war is commemorated with Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day). In still other countries, a memorial holiday remembers the war dead of more recent conflicts.

Here’s how countries around the world honor their fallen:

Britain

The United Kingdom observes Remembrance Sunday with ceremonies across the country on the Sunday nearest to November 11, the day Germany signed the armistice ending World War I hostilities. Today, the day memorializes fallen British soldiers in all conflicts since the Great War. On November 11 at 11 a.m.—the time of the signing of the armistice—the UK holds a two-minute silence. “Remembrance poppies” are worn and displayed as per a tradition inspired by the Canadian poet John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields:”

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

South Korea

South Koreans observe Memorial Day on June 6, the same month that the Korean War began, to honor servicemen and civilians who have died for their country. The nation holds a one-minute silence at 10 a.m.

France

Armistice Day in France is solemnly observed on Nov. 11 with ceremonies, special church services and poppy adornments. In recent years, the holiday has come to recognize all of the country’s war dead in addition to the 1.4 million people killed in the First World War.

New Zealand and Australia

Anzac Day on April 25 commemorates New Zealand and Australia’s servicemen and women who have died. The day, which stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,” falls on the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, the first major military action by both forces in the First World War in a campaign that would fuel the building of a national consciousness in both countries.

Turkey

Turkey observes Martyrs’ Day on March 18, the anniversary of a major victory against the Allied Powers during the Gallipoli Campaign. The day is used today to commemorate Turks who have died for the country.

Nigeria

Nigeria formerly observed Armed Forces Remembrance Day on Nov. 11 as a member of the commonwealth. But it has since moved the date to Jan. 15, 1970 to commemorate the end of the country’s civil war.

Italy

Italy observes National Unity and Armed Forces Day on November 4, the date Austria-Hungary surrendered to the Italians in 1918. The day is accompanied by ceremonies commemorating members of the armed forces killed in action.

Canada

Remembrance Day in Canada, a national holiday on Nov. 11, commemorates Canada’s servicemen and women. At 11 a.m., the country holds a two minute silence in memory of those who perished.

TIME Auto Racing

The Indy 500: The Greatest Spectacle in Racing

Gentlemen, start your engines.

+ READ ARTICLE

It’s Memorial Day weekend, which means pools are opining for the summer, families are firing up their grills and drivers are starting their engines for the greatest spectacle in racing: the Indy 500.

Indy car racers have gathered at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1911 to run the 500-miles-over-200-laps race with the hopes of taking the checkered flag. So sit down and pay attention, because TIME’s going to explain everything you need to know about the Indy 500 from the green flag to the victory milk swig. But don’t blink, because these cars move fast.

TIME Memorial Day

The Origins Of Memorial Day

A look at the origins of the national holiday.

+ READ ARTICLE

Since 1971, Memorial Day has been a nationally recognized holiday; but what are its origins?

Besides all the traveling and barbecuing that has become a mainstay of this three-day-weekend, at its core Memorial Day is a direct response to the aftermath of the American Civil War, a callback to both sides decorating the graves of their dead.

Waterloo, N.Y. was named the birthplace of Memorial day, but many other towns still contest for that title to this day.

For more than 40 years, Memorial Day has been officially celebrated on the last Monday of May.

TIME U.S.

Memorial Day Should Be About Forgetting

73071104
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm—Getty Images

We need to move beyond the brutality of history, and that's where backyard barbecues come in as a building block of national morale.

Memorial Day is one of America’s most confusing holidays. Depending on the celebrant, it can be a day of grief, glory—or backyard barbecues.

It’s not a bad thing to have such disparate takes on a day of remembrance. And don’t worry: You’re not a bad person if you choose to sit back and enjoy your day off. But sometimes it pays to think about why we get the day off in the first place and ponder the mysterious forces that bind hot dogs, tears, and flags all together.

Decoration Day, as the holiday was once known, arose in the years after the Civil War as a way to grieve for the 750,000 soldiers who had perished over four bloody years. Families who stifled their mourning during wartime sought public ways to pay tribute to the fallen in peacetime. Understandably, graves become a focus for the bereaved, and mourners took flowers to cemeteries to decorate them.

This practice first received semi-official sanction in 1868 when General John Alexander Logan, the head of a large fraternal organization of Union veterans, designated a day each year “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Southerners didn’t take too kindly to this initial effort, but by 1890 all the Northern states had recognized the holiday.

This emphasis on the Northern dead wasn’t just born of sectional spite. The ultimate sacrifice made by hundreds of thousands of men to preserve the Union elevated the value of the nation to its citizens. Lacking the traditional building blocks of other nations (such as centuries of shared history on the land or ancient blood ties), the U.S. had long had a difficult time forging a unifying national culture. The idealistic nature of American nationhood left people hungry for a more flesh-and-blood connection to their country.

It was the Union dead who first seemed to prove that America was more than a mere idea. “Before the War our patriotism was a firework, a salute, a serenade for holidays and summer evenings,” wrote essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1864. “Now the deaths of thousands and the determination of millions of men and women show that it is real.”

James Russell Lowell, the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, thought that the enormity of the Union Army’s sacrifice also proved something to condescending Europeans. “Till after our Civil War,” he wrote in 1869, “it never seemed to enter the head of any foreigner, especially of any Englishman, that an American had what could be called a country, except as a place to eat, sleep, and trade in. Then it seemed to strike them suddenly. ‘By Jove, you know, fellahs don’t fight like that for a shop-till!’”

The holiday overcame sectional tensions around World War I, when Southerners—though many still revered the heroes of their Lost Cause—rejoined the fold, and the day’s scope was expanded to honor Americans who died fighting in any U.S war. Commemorating the fallen is one way that governments rebuild the morale of nations that have suffered great loss. Even in victory, losses are real to families, and depictions of a triumphant nation thankful for its heroes can be comforting to a populace trying to move forward. The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial—which was unveiled in 1954 in Arlington, Virginia, and shows five Marines and a Navy corpsman hoisting the American flag during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II—is the quintessential depiction of perseverance and a classic commemoration of war.

But in the aftermath of no war do grief and glory intersect seamlessly. The needs of the state, bereaved families, and surviving veterans do not always coincide. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, Indiana University historian John Bodnar describes the main sides of the late 1970s and early 1980s controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On the one side, he writes, were national leaders, many patriotic veterans, and private citizens “who saw in the monument a device that would foster national unity and patriotism.” On the other were veterans who fought in Vietnam, people who cared about them, and bereaved families who were less interested in the memorial being a display of unity or patriotism than an expression of empathy for the soldiers who suffered and died. Empathy is paramount to the monument that was ultimately erected. The memorial—with the names of the fallen etched into black granite walls that sink into the National Mall—wound up symbolizing, in Bodnar’s words, “the human pain and sorrow of war rather than the valor and glory of warriors and nations.”

The annual Memorial Day holiday doesn’t elicit the same depth of emotional intensity as the planning of a permanent, national war memorial. But the interplay between grief and glory is ongoing. The politics and public reaction to war is ever-changing, and families who have lost soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan are likely to observe the day differently than somebody who has not had a relative in uniform since the Korean War.

Memorial Day also has divided the public in another way: between those who chose to observe the holiday and those who saw it as a chance for leisure time. While there’s no way to accurately estimate the size of each group, historians Richard P. Harmond and Thomas J. Curran suggest it’s likely that the latter always has been larger than the former. And that gap is probably growing wider.

Rather than harangue about some presumed decline of patriotism or gratitude in America, I’d suggest that backyard barbecues are also fundamental to Memorial Day’s building of national morale. Yes, it is absolutely critical to remember the fallen and the wars they died in. But, as the 19th-century French scholar Ernest Renan argued, forgetting is “an essential factor in the creation of a nation.” We also need to move beyond old divisions and the brutality of history. That, my fellow Americans, is where the hot dogs come in.

Gregory Rodriguez is the founder and publisher of Zócalo Public Square. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME U.S.

Heroism Is for War Movies, Not Veterans

108274988
Catherine Lane—Getty Images/Vetta

I was explicitly taught by my leaders and noncommissioned officers that a hero is the last thing you want to be.

“They think I’m some kind of damned hero,” the young veteran, a former airman, said in a hushed tone while ducking his head and quickly glancing behind him.

His voice and body language communicated that he was distressed, but it wasn’t due to a war-related memory. It was ironically caused by one of those obligatory moments at a Memorial Day observance when someone with a microphone solemnly asked all the veterans in the room to stand so that they could be publicly thanked as “America’s heroes.”

The airman was a munitions specialist who loaded ordnance onto Air Force jets bound for remote valleys in Afghanistan. While he was stationed in Afghanistan, he never left the base and spent his time in relative safety compared to service members who left the wire to fight insurgents.

He knew he didn’t belong on that pedestal. But how could he possibly dissuade the well-meaning folks who smiled and clapped for him? They weren’t applauding the man before them. Rather, their applause complied with the now-expected reaction to all veterans.

I, too, have been to events like this one, which the airman described to me after a recent student veterans meeting. It also made me feel uncomfortable to represent all my fellow veterans and the complex and often contradictory emotions wrapped into the ‘veteran’ label. I was a peacetime soldier who served before the start of the Iraq War. I’m proud to have served, but I know that I’m not a hero.

On Memorial Day, when our thoughts will be with our fallen brothers and sisters, I ask you to reconsider excessive use of the word “hero.” Please don’t perceive it as ingratitude. The word is just too intangible and inaccurate, and it has a different meaning to veterans than to the general public. Whether the title is deserved or not, most of us feel uncomfortable with it.

Even America’s newest living Medal of Honor winner, Army veteran Kyle White, feels the same: “I was just doing my job,” he said in an NBC story. “I am still uncomfortable with hearing my name and the word ‘hero’ in the same sentence,” he added in a CNN story. That is not false modesty. Other combat veterans I know feel the same as him.

We all had jobs to do and orders to follow, and we did so to the best of our training and abilities. Like a very large proportion of living American veterans, the airman and I fulfilled our duty without hearing a single shot fired in anger. And, like all veterans, we implicitly understand that we performed our roles in service of a larger mission. At least as important, we were also in service to each other.

Heroism is not a goal for any service member, nor should it be. Point blank, heroism is for war movies. Professionals in this business know that when the American soldier must rely on heroism, it means that something has gone very wrong in the planning and execution of a mission. Soldiers train, plan, and fight in a way that takes heroism out of the equation. I was explicitly taught by my leaders and noncommissioned officers that a hero is the last thing you want to be. This was a cultural norm reinforced throughout training at different levels and extracurricular professional development.

“Hero” has the connotation of a very explicit four-letter word in military culture. A “hero” is someone who recklessly endangers himself or his buddies. Want to go home? Then don’t be a “hero.” Want to get out of that foxhole alive? Well, you’d better hope that you’re not sharing it with a “hero.” “Heroes” draw fire. “Heroes” take unwarranted risks. A “hero” goes out of his way to act or appear heroic. Most who’ve worn a uniform want nothing to do with these people.

When called upon by the direst of circumstances, though, we’re grateful that true heroes in our ranks step forth. I think of men like Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe. His uniform soaked in fuel after a roadside bomb explosion, he exposed himself to enemy rifle fire to rescue his soldiers who were trapped in a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle. While pulling the driver out, his own uniform caught fire. After carrying the driver to safety—while still on fire himself—Cashe returned to the burning vehicle five more times. He would later die in a Texas hospital from burns to 72 percent of his body. He persisted in his rescue effort despite unthinkable pain and danger. No one asked him to; he did it for his soldiers. All six of them survived that day, and three of them are still alive thanks to him. He is a true hero.

So is Sergeant First Class Danny Ferguson, who died while using his body to block a door to protect a room full of soldiers from the shooter at Fort Hood in April. Cashe, Ferguson, and White (even though the status unsettles him) are true heroes. If faced with similar circumstances, who among us would actually muster that kind of courage?

We’re grateful for our heroes. True heroes have qualities we aspire to but hope that we never have to emulate. That’s because the circumstances for heroic action must exist before an individual can come forward to earn the title. Absent those conditions, we’re just doing our jobs like everyone else. Thus, many of us feel uncomfortable when the word “hero” is used loosely because we know better.

So why is there such excessive use of the term? An older veteran suggested to me that this is America’s way of making up for its neglect of Vietnam War veterans. By heaping praise upon a new generation, perhaps America is trying to heal its soul. Perhaps it’s trying to come to terms with its conflicted feelings about the most recent wars. This notion becomes more palpable with messages to “support the troops but not the war.”

The excessive use of the word “hero” also highlights a growing disconnect between those who are personally touched by war and the general population. During previous wars, there was a significantly higher percentage of the population in uniform, and Memorial Day directly touched most American families. Today, less than one half of one percent of our population is in uniform. Memorial Day seems transformed from something intensely personal for those who have lost family members or comrades to a spectacle from which many Americans have become emotionally disassociated.

Some correctly recognize that how we treat our veterans is an important reflection upon our society. But I think there’s a better way to express appreciation for veterans than simply calling them heroes. Help America follow through with its promise to veterans by ensuring that the Veterans Administration is well led, well managed, well funded, and accountable. Increase your support for veterans’ transition to civilian lives and employ them. Help the less fortunate veterans in our ranks. But simplest of all: just say “thank you” to acknowledge our service to America.

We served, and now we’re moving on with the rest of our lives. At the close of the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee’s words to his troops in his last address at the Appomattox Court House still resonate for veterans today, regardless of any one individual’s position on that war or any other: “And if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well.” We are doing our best, just like you: we’re sons and daughters, coworkers, and neighbors, and despite stereotypes (both positive and negative), we’re also just as complex. We struggle our best to live to a high standard, but we’re very much human. Some of us are proud of our service, and some of us are trying to overcome aspects of it, but we’re neither heroes nor victims. All of us understand that we were in service to something greater than ourselves.

This weekend, our thoughts will be with those we have lost. That’s the real purpose of Memorial Day. Please save the title of hero for Cashe, Ferguson, and the rest of our dead. They won’t flinch when they hear it.

Mike Stajura is a doctoral candidate at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. He served in the U.S. Army from 1995-2002. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,819 other followers