The Real War Heroes
by Joel Poindexter: My
Advice: An Open Letter to Gary Stein
The word hero
is bandied about so often that it's all but lost its meaning in
the American lexicon. Virtually everyone is a hero; policemen, firefighters,
and "first responders" are heroes, teachers, government workers,
and other "public servants" are heroes, soldiers, sailors, marines,
and drone operators, too, they're all heroes. The result of declaring
everyone heroic naturally devalues the word and we end up in a world
where the true heroes are ignored, forgotten or never even considered
in the first place. Virtually no one in the mainstream lauds the
innovators, the ones who make civilization itself possible. And
the businessmen and individual employees, the ones who slave day
in and day out to satisfy their fellow man, they’re never celebrated
(except of course when the latter is pitted against the former to
advance a particular agenda).
This is certainly
the case in the military, perhaps more than any of the other categories
mentioned above. In fact, the sense of ubiquitous heroism runs so
deep that when my wife mailed me a t-shirt that sarcastically read
"I'm a Hero," the irony was lost on all but just a few of my friends.
When I returned from my second deployment there were of course many
signs welcoming home the "heroes," but one in particular stuck out
as exceptionally ridiculous, it read "I gave birth to a hero."
idolatry and misplaced reverence for soldiers, I thought it important
to tell the story of a few actual heroes. These are men who, despite
making the mistake of joining the
military gang and allowing themselves to be used in that way,
distinguished themselves, both on the battlefield and in garrison
before and after deployments. Note that I've taken care to use other
names in order to protect their privacy, but all other information
is true and accurate, to the best of my knowledge.
The first man
on the list of heroes is Specialist Davis. He was assigned to a
mechanized infantry unit during the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003,
and carried a light machine gun. At one point during the push north,
Davis' platoon was clearing an area and came into contact with a
dismounted Iraqi Army unit. Davis was ordered to open fire on the
Iraqis as they retreated, but he refused. He said he wouldn't murder
retreating people. The courage it would have taken to stand up for
the lives of those retreating cannot be overstated. Soldiers can
be prosecuted under military law for refusing orders or "misbehaving"
in front of enemy troops. Worse still, they're isolated from the
other soldiers, made to live and work in even less comfortable conditions,
and humiliated publicly. Though not prosecuted formally, Davis was
certainly punished for his decision not to mow down those Iraqis.
on the list is Private Anderson, a deserter who fled the army just
weeks before he was scheduled to deploy to Iraq in early 2005. Many
suspected that he was acting out of cowardice, and were he not so
weak-kneed, would have stayed to fight. Whether Anderson chose to
flee from fear or for some other reason is irrelevant in my eyes.
Regardless of his motives he was unwilling to participate in the
war – which was certainly a dishonorable and inhumane endeavor –
and this is all to the good. The fewer the individuals offering
themselves up as sacrifices to the State and its wars the better.
Last I heard, Anderson was living with friends of his mother, some
anti-war activists who took him in when they heard he was on the
lam. Though not as dramatic as Davis' actions, Anderson assumed
a fair amount of risk in leaving. Deserters can be executed under
military law, though that doesn’t happen anymore; the more likely
outcome is some jail time, or worse, being sent off to war.
Lee exhibited the third case of heroism I'm aware of in my time
in the army. He joined the military, for what particular purpose
I have no idea, and quickly discovered he had made a mistake. (Oh,
that more Specialist Lees would recognize what a terrible choice
the military is). He eventually filed for status as a conscientious
objector and was moved from the line, where he'd been an infantryman,
to a position in the battalion headquarters where he worked in an
administrative role and no longer carried a weapon. It was here
that he stayed until his enlistment ended and he could leave the
military. While not as radical as simply leaving without permission,
formally objecting to war on moral grounds sends a powerful message.
The conscientious objector, for the most part, denies his critics
the ability to paint him as a coward the way deserters are when
they dare to say no to war. As far as I know, Lee wasn't publicly
disparaged for his beliefs; though I'm sure many thought less of
him for his principled opposition to war.
The final hero
in this list is Specialist Kirk. He too found the military wasn't
all it was cracked up to be and wanted out as soon as we returned
from Iraq. As far as I know he was never opposed morally to war
or military service, but he nevertheless hated the environment.
The bureaucratic nature of government, the ineptitude and slothfulness
that so many rail against in places like the Post Office and the
DMV is amplified a hundred times in the military. Tasks that should
be remarkably simple, and in civilian life are, become depressingly
complicated and needlessly tedious. This is due in part to the inane
rules and regulations that dictate virtually every facet of military
life; but it's also the result of the military's strict adherence
to the Peter Principle and the attraction the military has on socially
awkward and immature individuals. Kirk's initial enlistment was
for six years, meaning that by the time we got back he'd likely
have to endure two more year-long deployments. His overall hatred
for life in the military grew to the point where he decided using
forbidden drugs as a means of being discharged was worthwhile. While
I don't support drug use in general, I also recognize his right
to do so. He took an extended leave, unapproved of course, and tested
positive for one or more drugs, repeating this cycle until about
six months had passed and he was granted a discharge.
Each of these
men is a hero, in that they didn't blindly follow orders, stood
up for the rights of others, and refused to participate in an immoral
organization. They each used different methods for achieving their
ends, but never violated anyone's rights in the process, and likely
helped to preserve human life, in at least one case. One thing these
men did have in common was that they were all junior enlisted soldiers.
It is indeed rare to see such behavior in higher ranking members
of the military, although sometimes it does happen. For the most
part, those who advance enjoy the lifestyle, either because they’re
sociopathic or too ignorant to see what’s really going on.
There are exceptions
though, as in the case of Sergeant James Circello, who wrote this
pointed letter to the president and other figureheads of the
State, denouncing their wars and refusing to "be the fool that
enforces [U.S. foreign policy]." Another such refusal was made
by First Lieutenant Ehren
Watada, the only officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq. He believed
the war to be illegal and immoral and, rather than be party to war
crimes, resigned his commission. His opposition was not as steadfast,
as he requested to be sent to Afghanistan, where he believed an
invasion to be justified. But he didn’t back down, even when threatened
with legal action, including the possibility of jail time. He was
charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and eventually dismissed
after his court martial was declared a mistrial.
I wish now
that I'd left too, not boarded the plane and just went home. Better
still would have been never joining the army in the first place.
At least now that I’ve gone through it I know the truth. It was
during my first deployment that I learned that war is bad policy.
I saw it as too expensive, that it could only make things worse,
that it would incite others to join forces in order to avenge the
deaths of their loved ones and repel the invaders. In the struggle
for hearts and minds I like to think of this as helping to change
my mind about war. In my second deployment I saw war not only as
bad policy, but as evil, morally bankrupt, and dehumanizing. I saw
the terror in the eyes of a woman whose husband I helped abduct,
and it bothered me in ways I had always repressed before. In this
way, and others, my heart was changed about war.
The real heroes
aren’t those who take the most lives, who destroy the most property,
or who never question the morality or legitimacy of a given policy.
True heroism involves defending innocent life and standing up to
protect fellow human beings. It means refusing to participate in
violence and aggression, and it involves questioning – and openly
challenging – the State and its wars.
Poindexter [send him
mail] is a student at Johnson County Community College working
toward a degree in economics. He lives near Kansas City with his
wife and daughter. See his
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