The other evening I happened to catch part of the Hannity and Colmes show on Fox News. (Lest this confession should automatically dampen my credibility, I should mention that the owner of my local gym insists on having the TVs tuned permanently to that channel – with subtitles, I might add, so that it’s hard to get away from even if you don’t plug your headphones into the conveniently provided jacks on the treadmills.) One part of the program featured as guests a couple of servicemen who had just returned from the Gulf. Anchoring the segment, Sean Hannity welcomed them to the show and proceeded, without further ado or explanation, to inform them, “You guys are heroes.”
Knowing Hannity’s views on the war, I didn’t see anything odd in this at the time, and went back to my workout. The two men seemed a little uncomfortable, but I imagine that would be most people’s reaction: even a firefighter who’d just singlehandedly rescued twenty infants from a blazing hospital would probably cringe at being called a hero. In our self-deprecating culture, that’s natural.
But the more I thought about it later, the more remarkable it seemed. It was clear that in Hannity’s mind, all military service personnel – or at least those deployed in a war zone – are heroes. What wasn’t at all objectively clear was exactly what the two soldiers had done to earn such effusive praise.
My more sensible readers will, I take it, understand that I am not denigrating the service of Hannity’s guests. However, I am fairly certain that they are more acutely aware than he appeared to be of the military’s well-defined culture of heroism. Medals for valor are sparingly awarded and hierarchical, and to earn one, the soldier, sailor, flier or marine must meet a clear set of criteria. A veteran so decorated is rightly entitled to great respect.
The armed services have other medals, of course, for such things as longevity and meritorious service. But in this they are fundamentally no different than any large employer. I have several certificates for being Employee of the Month, for instance, but no one in their right mind would designate me as a hero because of them.
Most of us have our heroes. For some it is a celebrity or sports star. For others it is an extraordinary figure from history, like Caesar Augustus or Elizabeth the First. For still others it might be a parent who rose from childhood poverty to achieve academic or professional success. For us as individuals a hero exemplifies and elevates the qualities we most admire.
What Hannity meant when he called his guests “heroes” was simply that he appreciated their service. Most of us would agree that the nature of such professions as the military and emergency services sets those who work in them somewhat above the regular crowd. But that in itself raises the standards for heroism. What of extraordinary situations like the Second World War, with tens of millions of men and women under arms? Those people were the regular crowd. No doubt some would nonetheless argue that all of them were heroes, but that attitude is a copout, a lowering of the bar. Going into battle takes great bravery, but to call it heroism is to devalue the actions of those few who really did do things that set them above the others.
In Iraq, those include people like Gunnery Sergeant Justin LeHew, awarded the Navy Cross for valor under heavy fire in March 2003, including the rescue of a badly wounded fellow Marine from a stricken vehicle all of whose other occupants had been killed. Or Private Johnson Beharry, who received the Victoria Cross – Britain's highest military honor – for his actions on two occasions in helping rescue stranded soldiers while the Warrior armored vehicle he was driving received sustained hits from rocket-propelled grenades.
To the ancient Greeks, who coined the term, a hero was a truly extraordinary person: a literal demigod, embodying the supreme attributes of both humans and Olympians. Over the centuries the word has been used in many ways that describe mere mortals, and in that sense the standard for being heroic has dropped. But it has always implied an individual with unique qualities which set him or her above the rank and file, and it is in this, given that nothing we knew at that point about Hannity’s guests suggested that they were in any way more extraordinary than their comrades, that he was perpetuating the kind of token mentality that devalues not only heroism but many other great human qualities. To be a hero, this tokenism says, all you have to do is put on a uniform and step on a plane to Baghdad; to be patriotic, you just have to wear a flag lapel pin and put your hand on your heart during the national anthem.
All warriors are trained for their jobs in such a way that, when circumstances arise which require them to act heroically, they are able to draw on the tools and skills they have been given. In that sense, military training recognizes that we are all potential heroes, and perhaps we may accept Hannity’s praise for the two soldiers in that spirit. Somehow, though, I doubt he would readily appreciate those potential qualities in Alan Colmes, his liberal and war-critical co-anchor.