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What Does it Mean to Be a Hero?

Posted by Anthony on November 4, 2008

By Anthony J. Aschettino

As the election season enters its final days (or, most likely by the time this article goes to print, its final day) questions still remain, and will remain to be debated long after the final votes are tallied, about the rhetoric of the Presidential election. It is of course only natural for the candidates to attempt and define themselves as something positive as well as cultivate an equally negative character assesement for their opponents. Thus Senator Obama would like the electorate to associate himself with words like “hope” and “change”, whereas he has sought to imply that his opponent is simply “more of the same”. Senator McCain has likewise lobbed words such as “Socialist” and “inexperienced” over at the Obama camp while identifying himself by the now ubiquitous term “maverick” as well as “patriotic”. There is one term, however, that both all people involved have ceded to the McCain camp: that of “hero” or “war hero” when describing Senator McCain.

It is true that Senator McCain fought for The United States in Vietnam as a pilot. He was shot down, captured, tortured horribly, and to this day suffers from the aftereffects of his experiences. There is no question that he loves his country and was willing to if necessary make the ultimate sacrifice on her behalf. Yet the association of what he did with the term “hero” begs asking what it is exactly that makes one a hero. Does fighting for your country make you a “war hero”? Does it matter if the cause for which you are fighting is right or wrong? Is it the act of surviving as a POW that makes one a hero? Was it the fact that he was tortured that made him a hero? These are all legitimate questions and they demand answers.

Senator McCain certainly put his life on the line for his country, and one could argue that anyone who volunteers to make the ultimate sacrifice for his or her country is worthy of admiration. Still that would imply, and perhaps not wrongly, that all members of the American military being volunteers are heroes in their own fashion. The fact that he long endured captivity and torture speaks volumes about his character; is it this then that makes him a hero? On the other hand, he was not known to have committed any acts that people normally associate with the word “heroic”. American military lore is replete with examples of those who went beyond the call of duty, many of whom lost limbs or their lives, in the service of their country; reading up on the stories of those who were awarded the Medal of Honor gives ample evidence of the acts that one would normally consider associated with a hero.

Does it matter that the war in which he served, Vietnam, was unpopular at home and seen as imperialistic in nature abroad? Would it have been better if he had served in a previous war such as The Second World War, where there was a clearer distinction of good and bad? Even then, there were plenty of Germans for example who acted heroically in battle; one would be hard pressed to consider a soldier of the Nazi military machine a hero, and yet some of them fought heroically against the Soviet Union and were subjected to the same captivity and torture that Senator McCain suffered. There is, of course, no legitimate comparison between the military actions of The United States in Vietnam and that of Germany during the Second World War, yet again it raises the overriding question of what makes one a hero.

At the end of the day Americans hold their military, rightly so, in almost a sacred regard. Despite the many shortcomings in American foreign policy, the overall beliefs for which American soldiers fight, suffer, and die remain lofty in idea even if not in always in practice. A soldier, after all, is not asked to comment on the political agenda of a military operation but rather to act as the instrument of that policy which results in such action. Having said that, Senator McCain may well be worthy of the appellation “hero”, but perhaps no more than any of those men and women who lie still under the countless crosses, Stars of David, crescents, and other emblems that dot the many cemeteries spread around the world in silent testimony to the idea that fighting for ones country is indeed a noble thing.

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