Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Making Heroism Political

I am not a big fan of Arizona senator John McCain:  contrary to his stated image as a "maverick," he votes like a typical conservative Republican-- not that there's anything wrong with that, but his views and mine rarely agree.  Still, I would never deny that he served bravely in the military during the Vietnam era: the fact that he endured torture at the hands of his captors has been well documented, and his valor earned him seventeen awards, including the Silver Star medal.

And then there's the former senator from Massachusetts, the current U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry. While I thought he ran a surprisingly inept presidential campaign in 2004,  I have always liked him, and our stands on issues frequently aligned.  But before he became a senator, he was a member of the military.  When many people from his social class found clever ways to avoid military service, Kerry willingly enlisted, and he too served bravely in Vietnam.  He also received the Silver Star, as well as several other medals.  Ultimately, Kerry came home and turned against the war, but there is still no denying his courage in serving.  

As most of you know, the other day, business mogul and Republican candidate for president Donald Trump asserted that in his view, John McCain was no hero, because he got captured.  The implication seemed to be that just like in the movies, the winners single-handedly defeat the enemy, and it's only the losers who are taken as captives.  I disagree.  And while over the years, McCain's detractors have called into question his skills as a fighter pilot, that too seems beside the point.  He was in fact a Prisoner of War, and he was in fact held captive for six years.  Whether or not his own actions contributed to his being shot down (as his detractors claim), the fact remains that John McCain endured extreme brutality at the hands of his captors. And Donald Trump, who never served a day in the military, and is probably not qualified to pass judgment on McCain's service. 

Then again, perhaps Trump is one of those "McCain Truthers," who believes McCain lied, or at least exaggerated, about his service, and was in some way responsible for his captivity.  We saw a similar phenomenon during the 2004 presidential campaign, when a group of military men who labeled themselves "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" said that John Kerry had lied about his military record and did not deserve the medals he received.  As it turned out, nearly all of the veterans who claimed to have served with him had never done so, and the group itself was mainly funded (and may have also been founded) by the Republican Party, as well as a handful of wealthy supporters of President George W. Bush.  And the more that reporters investigated, the more they found what really made the Swift Boat veterans so opposed to Kerry:  not his military service, but rather, his later anti-war activism.  Still, the series of TV ads the Swift Boat Vets ran against him were devastatingly effective.  They were also shamefully misleading:  John Kerry did in fact serve, he was in fact awarded those medals, and his later political views should not have invalidated his courage during combat in Vietnam.        

Despite the fact that Trump is a provocateur who loves to say outrageous things, it made me think about what a "hero" is.  In today's celebrity culture, the word is thrown around way too much, and is often applied to people who are talented or popular, rather than what the dictionary would define as a hero.  If you look it up, you find one definition is "a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities."  Another definition is "a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal."  And then, there is the definition used in literature, where the hero is the "good guy," the protagonist in a story, a play or a movie. (And of course, from Greek mythology, we get the classic definition, in which the hero is "a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity.)

Whether or not you agreed with the Vietnam War (or any other war, for that matter), a person who performed his or her military service and did not try to avoid it is certainly to be commended, and some of the veterans definitely acted heroically.  Of course, I understand that it's not just during a war that heroism can be seen-- journalists reporting from dangerous countries, human rights workers (the International Rescue Committee and Doctors Without Borders come to mind), first responders, emergency room doctors and nurses, these are just a few examples of the people who rise to the occasion and act heroically.  Performing extraordinary actions in difficult times is never easy, whether putting yourself in danger by bringing food and medicine to a refugee camp, or running into a burning building to save a family, or teaching girls to read in a country where terrorists have threatened your school.  Not every hero is recognized-- too often, acts of courage and bravery go unnoticed because the person who performed them didn't seek out any praise or wasn't a celebrity.  But those of us affected by those courageous acts know a hero when we see one.  

Meanwhile, back to politics, where battles of a different kind are fought.  I agree that Donald Trump should apologize to John McCain, but I also think that everyone who denigrated John Kerry's service (including Jeb Bush) should also apologize to him.  Both McCain and Kerry performed heroically, under circumstances most of us could never have survived.  Calling someone's courage or bravery or patriotism into question just to get elected does not speak well of the person doing it; but it also does not speak well of the many people who remain silent just because they don't like the person being criticized. 

1 comment:

  1. Wise words Ms Halper! Senator McCain did not did not set out looking for fame and/or glory when he climbed into a plane that was to be shot down by North Vietnam guns.
    Nor did Lt. John F. Kennedy seek fame and/or glory that night in the Pacific during WWII when his PT boat was cut in half by a Japanese warship, causing he and crew to swim for their lives and hide out until rescued. In war, stuff happens. With a little luck, more participants come home than don't.