Questioning heroism

In general to be called a “hero”, you must do something heroic. This means that donning a particular uniform doesn’t make you a hero by default. I don’t care if you’re a law enforcement officer, EMT, nurse, physician, fire fighter, or military personnel. You are not a hero if you haven’t done anything heroic. I mean if all you did in the military was repair vehicles or cook meals, you’re not a hero. Sorry to break it to you.

This also leaves open to questioning whether someone is actually a hero. I’m talking, of course, about Senator John McCain and the recent comments from Donald Trump calling into question whether McCain was actually a war hero: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Everyone is up in arms, demanding that Trump apologize. Governor Rick Perry said that Trump’s comments made him “unfit to serve as President” while insinuating that he also insulted virtually every veteran living and passed:

Donald Trump should apologize immediately for attacking Senator McCain and all veterans who have protected and served our country. As a veteran and an American, I respect Sen. McCain because he volunteered to serve his country. I cannot say the same of Mr. Trump. His comments have reached a new low in American politics. His attack on veterans makes him unfit to be commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, and he should immediately withdraw from the race for president.

Rick Perry served in the United States Air Force as a commissioned officer from 1972 to 1977, leaving at the rank of Captain (O-3), but never served in Vietnam. John McCain graduated from the United States Naval and Marine Corps Academy in Annapolis and served as an airwing commander during Vietnam. His father and grandfather both also served in the United States Navy, both achieving the rank of Admiral (O-10). Senator McCain would leave the Navy at the rank of Captain (O-6), as his injuries would impair his military duty and ability to maintain minimum requirements for continued service.

Among his awards is the Silver Star and Bronze Star, both of which are awarded for bravery. But the most cited attribute of his military service is his POW status during the Vietnam conflict. It is to this that Trump was speaking when calling McCain’s status as a “war hero” into question.

McCain’s Silver and Bronze Stars mean he had to have done something exceptional during his military service. But the Bronze Star can be awarded for merit or bravery, so a person being awarded the Bronze Star doesn’t mean they did something heroic. That is certainly the typical assumption. McCain’s Silver Star does mean he was considered a fighter ace — having five or more confirmed kills while in the air — and did something considered gallant.

But does that mean he was a “war hero”? That depends on when he earned his Silver and Bronze Star medals and, more importantly, why. Three instances of the Bronze Star, plus his Silver Star, were awarded for actions that occurred while he was a prisoner of war. Did he actually do anything exceptional or heroic during his five and a half years in captivity?

But the bigger question comes down to this: why the backlash for even asking that question?

Questioning someone’s status as a “hero” I feel is about the civil religion of patriotism. They need their heroes, just as the pious need their saints and martyrs. So when someone is declared a saint, or called “blessed” like the late Mother Theresa, anyone calling that status into question is treated as a pariah. The same with “heroes”. Seth Andrews, notable atheist speaker and host of the podcast “The Thinking Atheist”, said this during a recent speech he called “The Mother of Bad Ideas“:

Who’s another hero embraced by millions, above reproach or criticism? I’ve got one. After all who could ever say an unkind word about Mother Theresa. [Audience goes dead silent] You feel that? The reaction is kind of a physical one when you say it to some people. You mention Mother Theresa and you look like you’re about to say an unkind or, sort of an unpraising word, and the chin goes up and, “Whoa, nuh uh. Stop right there. That’s Mother Theresa you’re talking about.”

Indeed Mother Theresa’s legacy goes entirely without question, though it should absolutely be questioned as there are facts in evidence about her that are readily ignored by the vast, vast majority of the world.

There is nothing wrong with calling into question anyone’s status as a “hero”. What we must avoid is the acceptance without question that someone is a hero either because they served in the military, or as a fire fighter or EMT or law enforcement officer. The uniform does not make the hero. Actions do. And actions can be questioned at any time for any reason, and evidence can be demanded at any time to justify a person being called a “hero”.

John McCain’s “war hero” status, however earned, is not above reproach. No person’s “war hero” status is above reproach once bestowed, and may be revoked at any time if it is discovered they did not actually do anything heroic. As such, Donald Trump is well within his right to openly question John McCain’s status as a “war hero”, and to openly declare that he is not one or to demand explanation for how McCain earned the awards that provide his “war hero” status.

But to respond to Trump’s request with the insinuation that he’s insulted all veterans implies that all veterans are heroes (they’re not) and, thus, above reproach (again, they’re not). And that is the attitude that needs to be snuffed out. Questioning one veteran’s status as a “war hero” does not call into question every “war hero”. But given how this country tends to react when it is discovered someone is guilty of “stolen valor”, it should never been seen as unreasonable to call someone’s valor into question and have them produce evidence that such valor was actually earned.

How do we know that John McCain is a “war hero”? How do we know that everyone labeled a “war hero” is actually one? We can’t. But asking the question is not an insult to veterans, but something every person should do. “Oh you earned the Silver Star? What did you do for it?” If you have a Silver Star and your reaction to that question is to feel angry or insulted, you have the problem. If your reaction is to question my patriotism or act like you don’t have to answer that question (which you’re not exactly under any obligation to do so), then you have the problem.

But if you’re going to wear that ribbon and be called a “war hero” for it (regardless of whether you adopt the label or not), I have full right to question whether that label is justified.

Now certainly Trump is acting out of ignorance with his statements. Perhaps if he learned of McCain’s decorations as a naval officer, and how he earned them, he might change his tune. That still does not justify implying that Trump has somehow insulted all veterans, and does not justify implying that all veterans are heroes, and that McCain’s service in the Navy is above reproach.