My grandfather was a career military officer, and I admired him deeply for it. As a child, I would try to imagine the battles he was in, and I thought of him as a hero. As I grew older, I became more aware of what he had given up for us, and what that might have cost him.
More than once he was admitted to mobile surgical hospitals during the Second World War. They removed the large pieces of shrapnel, but throughout his life, more small pieces would work their way out to the surface from where they lay buried. They were deeply buried, weapons that continued to wound him for decades after the war officially ended. For him, I’m not sure the war ever did come to an end. Every time he walked through an airport metal detector, the shrapnel in his back would set it off.
He was a quiet man when I met him, and a gentle one. He was a good grandfather, and I loved him. But I also feared him from the day when, as a small child who was just beginning to understand the word “war” I asked him, “Did you ever see someone die?” Had I been older, I would have known not to ask. But I was very young, so I asked. I know now that the question prodded at some of his deepest wounds. Of course he had seen men die; he probably sent some of his men to their death. And I know – though I cannot know how deeply – that this fact was one of the worst things he carried to his grave. I often wish I could find him now and tell him I’m sorry, and thank him.
I don’t think he regarded himself as a hero. If anything, he regarded himself as a man who did what he could, and who wished he had done better. No doubt hindsight gnawed at him, and reminded him of what could have been if only things had been a little different. I hope words better than mine are being spoken to his soul now.
And I wish that we, as a people, would speak better words to those who have served in our wars. I fear that we do them, and ourselves, a disservice when we call them all heroes without letting them decide which deeds were heroic and which should be left unspoken. When we call everyone who wears a uniform a hero, we diminish heroism everywhere.
I don’t mean we should refrain from thanking those who serve. If anything, we should thank them far more than we do, and our thanks should not just be in words. Our thanks should be sincere and long-lasting, and expressed in things like the best military hospitals we can afford, the best education we can provide, and our best efforts to ensure that their generation will be the last to endure what they have endured. Even if those ideals prove to be unattainable, we should not let that stop us from trying to attain them. As the Talmud says, “It is not your job to finish the work, but you are not free to walk away from it.”
One important thing we can do is we can tell good stories, stories that children will hear and make their own. We need stories that will remind us that heroes are not only made on the battlefield. Emerson reminds us that if we valorize only the person in the uniform, we run the risk of loving the uniform more than the one who wears it. As he put it, “Is an armed man the only hero? Is a man only the breech of a gun, or the hasp of a bowie-knife?” Surely it is not the weapon that makes heroes, but what we choose to do with whatever we may hold in our hands.
And another important thing we can do is to remind ourselves that it is not the war, nor the warrior that we should regard as the highest ideal of our culture. We should remember that the war, and the warrior, if they are worth honoring at all, are worth honoring because of what they protect. As Tolkien once wrote in one of his very good stories, “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” Fighting does not make us better by itself, but struggling for what is good improves us all.
I still think of my grandfather as a hero, not because of what he did, but more than anything, because of what — and whom — he loved.
David O’Hara is a professor in the department of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at Augustana College, an ELCA Lutheran college in South Dakota, where he directs the philosophy program. His most recent book was on C.S. Lewis' environmental vision. O’Hara also contributes to the Chronicle of Higher Education and blogs here.
Image: United States Marine Corps War Memorial, Paul MacKenzie / Shutterstock.com