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Hannity’s Heroes

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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.

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About Dr Dreadful

  • Anthony G

    I’d say any service member who has been deployed is a hero….
    1) they most likely joined the service knowing its a time of war

    2) the hours and the sacrifice service members put into training while the rest of the population works 9 to 5

    3) the long trip to Iraq/Afghanistan in uniform waiting in anticipation to fly and land over a war zone

    4) every service member down there is perfoming a job vital to the overral mission

    5) every service member is at risk 24 hours a day 7 days a week of losing his/her life just to perform that job non stop while the rest of the nation is working 9 to 5

    …so yes these men and women are heroes…I don’t need to know EXACTLY what they did to call them that.

  • Baronius, I acknowledge that there are different kinds of heroism, and that some acts are more heroic than others. It’s a question of where you draw the line. I think the military recognizes this: otherwise, as Clavos points out, every new recruit would have a Medal of Honor pinned to their chest as soon as they signed on the dotted line.

    I’ve read enough stories (fictional and non-fictional) of military life and combat to know that those who serve are worthy of our deepest respect. It distresses me when returning combatants from an unpopular conflict are vilified when the ire should be directed towards the politicians who put them in that situation.

    I was also deeply sorry when I came across the story of Johnson Beharry because, incredibly, I’d never heard it before. The Victoria Cross is a HUGE deal. It’s rare that one is awarded at all, and even rarer for the recipient to still be alive (the last before Beharry’s was given to Colonel ‘H’ Jones of the Parachute Regiment, who was killed at the Battle of Goose Green during the 1982 Falklands War). Such news just doesn’t get sufficiently reported, it seems.

    A sad footnote to Beharry’s story is that the BBC has canceled a planned TV movie about his heroism because of the unpopularity of the Iraq war.

    I’m also aware that service personnel do great deeds every day that are never made public. For all I know, the two men who appeared on Hannity and Colmes might have done something incredibly heroic. It was just never elaborated on, and simply taken as read that they were heroes just because they were in uniform.

    Yesterday or the day before, I came across an old BC article by Shark, in which he shared some of his father’s memoirs of combat at the Battle of the Bulge. Some thought-provoking perspectives on heroism there, from a man who fought alongside a Medal of Honor winner.

  • Baronius

    Dread, I hope that you’re toying with me.

    You’re arguing that the expansion of the word “hero” is a natural process in every context but the military. You further argue that the word must have the narrowest possible meaning, and that there cannot be degrees of heroism (except in every other context).

    You’re wrong, by the way. I read about LeHew, who was awarded the Navy Cross. According to the Navy, this medal is given for “extraordinary heroism”.

    You also say that “this Romantic idea of automatic heroism through enlistment is a very new concept”. But as you note, the idea of being noble in war is relatively new, too. It’s no surprise that Visigoths weren’t respected for their decency, but that has nothing to do with our level of respect for the American military.

    Perhaps it wasn’t heroism but duty that compelled people in the 1940’s to enlist. In the Vietnam years, though, draft-dodging became a common action. Carter then pardoned all those who did dodge the draft. So with that recent history of people not serving even when drafted, I think that “automatic” heroism for enlistees is appropriate.

    The main reason that this article irks me is that I remember the disrespect shown to the military during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. This article clearly isn’t intended as an insult to our servicemen and women, but it’s troubling to me that you’d feel the need to write an entire article in protest of our troops being called heroes. Then again, if Fox News said that the sky is blue, I bet that you’d consider writing a rebuttal. 🙂

  • pleasexcusetheinterruption

    On the subject of heroism, try reading the article “Saluting Those Who Serve” by Edwin Feulner, founder of the Heritage Foundation. A page of praise and “saluting” sums up with:

    “[Military spending] As a percentage of our gross domestic product (about 4 percent today), that’s far less than we’ve spent in past wars.”


    ” ‘I think as a country we’re just going to have to devote more resources to national security in the world that we’re living in right now.’ That’s worth remembering this weekend.”

    A disgusting and shallow exploitation of American military service.

  • Dread, you bring up Fox News a lot.

    Do I?

    Your resting pulse must be over 100 bpm in that place.

    Isn’t that the whole idea of cardio?

    Until a soldier is proven to have acted dishonorably, he’s a hero. Putting on a uniform and getting on a plane to Baghdad is heroic. These people are role models.

    Well, really, that’s a whole nother discussion (see you over on Kenn Jacobine’s latest piece…), but this Romantic idea of automatic heroism through enlistment is a very new concept. In a society without a draft, it’s an excellent recruitment tool. Back in the day, there were other incentives… but I doubt you’d have regarded all those who fought in, say, the Hundred Years’ War as heroic – when one of the perks of soldiery was free rein to ransack the cities, property and womenfolk of the vanquished.

    Of course the modern US military – with the exception of a few bad apples – wouldn’t dream of behaving in such a way, but I think that standard is a reaction to the Romantic ideals of the warrior rather than the other way round.

    Did you read the linked citations of Sgt LeHew and Pte Beharry? Are there then degrees of heroism? We can look at it that way if you prefer, but then you have to extrapolate downwards and allow also for lesser degrees of heroism which can be met by those not in the military. In that sense, I can quite justifiably claim to be a hero on the strength of my Employee of the Month awards. I just feel that if you don’t reserve the term for those who commit actions which are truly extraordinary, it becomes meaningless.

    In a world of Guitar Hero for Playstation, where Harrison Ford and Will Smith are called “action heroes”, you see the use of the word for our armed forces as devaluation? Madness.

    You do realize that the word ‘hero’ has different contextual meanings? Ford and Smith are fictional heroes (or at least the characters they play in their movies are). Sensible people realize that the actors do not necessarily possess the qualities and abilities of their on-screen personas.

    Your outrage makes as much sense as your taking offense if I were to say that you’d put a ‘liberal’ amount of peanut butter on your sandwich.

  • Clavos

    Why stop there, Baronius? As long as there all “heroes,” let’s give them all Medals of Honor, too.

    Your comment literally proves Doc’s point.

  • Baronius

    Dread, you bring up Fox News a lot. Cardio is good for you, but I think that your heart would be better off if you stopped going to the gym. Your resting pulse must be over 100 bpm in that place.

    I don’t know what Sean Hannity’s intention is, but I’ve got no problem with calling members of the armed forces heroes. Until a soldier is proven to have acted dishonorably, he’s a hero. Putting on a uniform and getting on a plane to Baghdad is heroic. These people are role models.

    Every G.I. in World War II is a hero in my book. If anything, the contemporary soldier is more of a hero, as we have an all-volunteer army in a time of war. In fact, the more I think about this article, the more offended I am. In a world of Guitar Hero for Playstation, where Harrison Ford and Will Smith are called “action heroes”, you see the use of the word for our armed forces as devaluation? Madness.

  • PETI, for the most part they are not doing this for political ends, they are doing it to serve their massive and unjustifiably inflated egos. That’s most true of O’Reilly who’s not even terribly conservative except when it serves his egotistical quest for notoriety.


  • No, PETI, I’m not only just realizing about Hannity and the rest of the Fox crew. But usually their bullshit is just like the little buzzing fly in the room: annoying as hell, but you do your best to ignore it.

    It’s just that sometimes an idle thoughtless remark triggers a train of thought, and this is where it led.

  • pleasexcusetheinterruption

    You’re just realizing these people will say and do anything for their agenda? None of them have ever served themselves. They’re just as likely to defame American soldiers if it suits their purposes. Take Bill O’Reilly’s (two) interviews of General Clark. O’Reilly accuses (on two seperate occassions) an American unit of capturing and murdering a unit of SS. The truth was the exact opposite. An SS unit captured and murdered at least 84 American soldiers at Malmedy. The second time he said this, he was corrected by a viewer by email. He refused to admit he was wrong and subsequently chose to explain on air that after this massacre, Americans killed a few SS in retaliation (IMO something he completely made up). FOX then changed the transcript of his original statement from Malmedy to Normandy. Watch the Keith Olbermann response on YouTube, as he says, after you defame 84 murdered U.S> murdered soldiers, you’re not supposed to make excuses and lie about it after the fact, you’re supposed to shut the fuck up for a while. These people (Hannity, O’Reilly, other neo-cons) have created the myth of heroism for political ends only, and will abandon it as soon as it serves them, having no real appreciation of the U.S. military themselves beyond as a political tool.

  • I think you’ve got a good point here. Cheapening heroism can’t be a good thing. I have all the respect in the world for our soldiers and the risks they take, but despite the casualties and highly publicized incidents of violence, most of those serving in the armed forces and even most of those serving in Iraq are at relatively little risk. They may all be brave for making themselves available for potentially dangerous duty, but only a small fraction find themselves in truly dangerous situations and distinguish themselves there.


  • bliffle

    Hannity is a vain blowhard and when he ascribes heroism the purpose is to glorify Hannity himself and no one else.

  • Lee Richards

    Re #2:

    “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
    I have literally read the citation of every Medal Of Honor winner from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. To me, everyone of those recipients deserved his Medal and designation as a hero.

    Veterans in general deserve our gratitude, respect, and a place of honor in our society for their service. Those who face combat have, in my estimation, earned a greater measure of appreciation.

    And when I stand at the Vietnam Memorial, I believe that all those names carved there do represent heroes who gave everything they could possibly give when they were called upon to serve. (Not that I think Vietnam was worthy of their sacrifice.)

    Everyone in the military is not necessarily a “hero”, just as everyone who serves in Congress isn’t necessarily “honorable.”

  • Michael

    It seems the owner of your gym is the only one with any intelligence around here.

  • Clavos

    I agree with you, Doc, the word hero is bandied about too much and too widely these days.

    An even more egregious situation IMO, is “medal inflation.”

    For example, a total of 4,375,000 US troops served in WW I, and a total of 124 Medals Of Honor were awarded.

    1,500,000 US troops served in the Korean Conflict, and a total of 133 Medals of Honor were awarded.

    3,403,000 troops served in Vietnam and a total of 246 Medals of Honor were awarded. 25% fewer troops than WW I received 100% more medals.

    As with other kinds of inflation, the more medals that are awarded, the more the value of each individual medal is deflated.