Benjamin Summers is a captain in the U.S. Army. The views expressed are his own.
I have worn an Army uniform for the past eight years and deployed twice to Afghanistan. This doesn’t make me a hero.
Many veterans deserve high praise for their heroism, but others of us do not. Infantrymen who put their lives on the line for a mission, aircrews who flew into harm’s way to evacuate the wounded, servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice — these are some of the heroes I’ve been privileged to know. Applying the label “hero” to those of us who haven’t earned it diminishes the service and sacrifice of those who did. It also gets in the way of constructive debate and policymaking.
Over the past decade, a growing chasm between military and civil society has raised the pedestal upon which the United States places those who serve in its military. Too much hero-labeling reinforces a false dichotomy that’s commonly heard in our political discourse: You’re either for the troops or you’re against them. We badly need to find ways to bridge this civilian-military gap to cultivate a more nuanced appreciation of service and to produce better policy in Washington.
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center report, the percentage of Americans who served in the military has been declining since 1970 — an obvious consequence of the move from a draft to an all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War. The number of veterans in Congress also has fallen dramatically, from more than 50 percent in the 1980s to about 20 percent today. Inevitably, a smaller proportion of veterans in civil society means less civil knowledge of military issues.
At the same time, the widening civil-military divide intensifies the aura that attaches to military service, especially when the country is at war. Over the past decade, veterans did many things that the general public didn’t do and doesn’t necessarily comprehend fully: deploying, being away from home for a year, serving in war zones. During these years, it’s undeniable that veterans have received a hero’s embrace from their nation; one need look no further than the positive treatment of veterans in Super Bowl commercials or at emotional airport welcome-home events. While we veterans surely appreciate a supportive public, too much hero-labeling has unintended consequences.
The past year offers an indication of the blinding effects of this problem. Defense spending is a prime example. Too often, policymakers frame discussion of whether to cut the military budget as being for or against the troops; the political battle over the military portion of the sequester is an example of this black-or-white mind-set. But any bureaucracy — particularly one that doesn’t function with a profit-and-loss mentality — can innovate and gain efficiencies when it’s forced to do more with less. If we’re not searching for opportunities to fix, clean and trim our organizations, we’re not being good stewards of them. When we can’t have political discussions that dig beneath the blanket of “for or against the troops,” palatability wins over stewardship. And one of our nation’s most precious resources suffers the long-term consequences.
The recent Department of Veterans Affairs scandals further illuminate this problem. A backlog of disability claims is surely evidence of a VA system that needed to be fixed. The allegations of serious ethical shortcomings in accounting for long waits for VA health care in Phoenix were reprehensible. But the public outcry addressed only one side of the problem. Headlines such as “Making America’s Heroes Wait” capture the tone, but they obscure the questions we should be asking, such as: Are there too many claims? How many caught in the backlog suffered a combat-related injury? If we added scrutiny to who qualifies for VA benefits, would the system function better? In the current environment, it’s just not politically palatable to ask these kinds of questions. You can’t make America’s heroes wait.
The list goes on. We were all happy to see Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl released after being held prisoner in Afghanistan for so long, but to prematurely say that he served with honor and distinction diminishes those who did earn such accolades and illuminates the general mislabeling of military service. It isn’t that the U.S. public shouldn’t honor those who served in combat; it’s that a large civil-military divide prevents policymakers from even asking the right questions. Leaders inside and outside the military need to focus on bridging this gap.
Not every service member is a hero. The quicker we realize that, the quicker we start creating a political environment that can foster genuine debate and answer the difficult policy problems we face.