This past Veterans Day, I was overwhelmed with the amount of support from people who took the time to honor our veterans, past and present. I received personal notes from friends who only wished to let me know that they were thinking of me that day. However, the appreciation and respect of the general public must be tempered lest members in the veteran community develop a sense of superiority or entitlement. David Masciotra’s sensational Salon article titled “You don’t protect my freedom: Our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy” could have addressed this problem but instead detracted from a productive dialogue by waging a semantic argument about what constitutes a hero and whether our wars were just — he even delved into police tactics.
The civilian population’s treatment of veterans is largely respectful and at some points almost too deferential. The same day a fellow Marine and I were called baby killers (a response that is definitely an outlier), a different lady tried to give us a $100 bill. When we refused, she stuffed it into my friend’s front pocket and ran off. I have even had anti-war protestors bring baked goods for the Marines in the recruiting office I was working out of.
While the appreciation of the public is a better response than veterans from the forgotten war in Korea or the unpopular war in Vietnam received, there is a legitimate danger of viewing all veterans as superhumans. Not all members of the military are heroes. Just like the civilian population, there are heroes, good people, average people and bad people. I was never a hero. I did my job to the best of my ability. I hope that I did lasting good to the units I served, positively affected the lives of those Marines I mentored and learned lessons that I will apply to the rest of my life to make me a better person.
Many veterans feel this way. However, Masciotra’s referral to veterans as victims — and use of that sentiment to discredit the heroic sacrifices of many men and women — is calloused and boneheaded. Even if you accept his premise of victimhood, being a victim makes acts where one puts his or her life on the line for another no less heroic. The most heroic acts can involve selfless men and women who suffered harm or put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives of their fellow service members. In fact, many of those same individuals will tell others that they are not heroes. They view their choices as part of their ethos or duty and merely believe that they were doing what should be expected of all members of the armed forces. Often, veterans live with survivor guilt — Masciotra is pouring salt into the wounds these people still actively try to manage.
He also points to incidences where members of the military committed atrocities, and he mentions the high rate of sexual assault in the military. Where the military has failed, our overseers — the civilian population — hold it accountable. The insistence of our greater citizenry to address these issues has forced the military to confront longstanding problems and improve the ranks in the process. This is a productive factor of having an involved civilian population. Individuals and groups must be accountable for atrocities they commit. However, they in no way diminish the sacrifices of our service members. The fact that many of the incidences Masciotra mentions are well-known shows how the conduct of our military is not taken lightly.
Appropriately, respecting veterans does not automatically create a special class of citizens. Yes, we should honor veterans and stand by commitments made to them — but we must also not be afraid to disagree with, challenge or otherwise expect the best out of the men and women who served. No one likes an entitled veteran less than the veteran community. A quick search will provide scores of articles written by veterans critical of members of our community who demand special treatment — whether it has to do with small matters like free checked baggage at airports or refusals to budge when certain benefits are questioned in light of the whole country’s fiscal pains.
People often ask me what it is like being a veteran at Dartmouth. I tell them it is amazing because the vast majority of students treat me as one of them. I will never forget the kindness shown to me here. Many of us signed up to do something exceptional. We take pride in that fact, but while we are thankful for the appreciation the public shows us, we do not want or expect hero worship.