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Our Great Ones
Do we know heroes when we see them?


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Even as our nation is at war, why do young Americans rarely mention soldiers when asked to name a hero? Why have Nathan Hale, Alvin York, and Audie Murphy disappeared from the memory of American students?

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For most of human history, the word “hero” has been synonymous with “warrior.” George Washington was a soldier, as were many of our other presidents: Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Monuments in every town square in America honor those who gave up their lives so that the promise in the Pledge of Allegiance — “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all” — could be realized.

Yet as I travel around the country talking to students about heroes, they ask about athletes, humanitarians, celebrities, parents, and only infrequently about soldiers. In New Haven, Connecticut, a high-school student followed me after my talk, upset by the suggestion that soldiers could ever be considered heroes. In New York City, a student asked, “Aren’t the heroes the soldiers on the winning side?” Even after the attacks of September 11, warriors are off their radar screen. Why?

On National Public Radio I recently debated historian Howard Zinn at the University of Pennsylvania. Zinn argued that America is and always has been an expansionist, warlike nation dominated by a ruling class interested in preserving its wealth and power. I argued that America goes to war reluctantly, encourages social mobility, strives for social justice, and learns from its mistakes. He characterized Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as warmongers, criticized our victory in Afghanistan, and lamented the pain our economic sanctions have brought to the people of Iraq. Patriotism, he insisted, is not loyalty to America but incessant challenge of our government, which throughout our history has always pushed us into war.

Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, has just sold its millionth copy. It is widely used in high-school social-studies courses and teacher-training colleges and regularly cited in schools I visit. In it, Zinn claims that America fought in World War I to help munitions manufacturers. In his presentation of World War II, he dwells on Hiroshima. According to A People’s History, the Cold War was our fault as much as Russia’s, American soldiers fought in Korea to prop up a corrupt dictator, and Vietnam was not a blunder but a crime.

After the Vietnam War, the concept of the American soldier as hero reached an all-time low, and the radical revisionist view of the American past took hold in our schools. Consequences of this view are unrelenting criticism of American foreign policy, less space in textbooks to diplomatic and military history, and scant praise for soldiers.

Complementing revisionist texts in social-studies classes is the reading list in English classes: Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the poems of Wilfred Owen. Frederick Henry, a medic on the Italian front in A Farewell to Arms, has his knee blown off while eating cheese and vehemently denies any heroism worthy of a medal. Robert Cormier’s book Heroes, designed for junior high-school students, was on display in the library in one of the schools I visited. Cormier portrays a World War II soldier who wins the Medal of Honor as a rapist.

The antiwar curriculum in schools is further fortified by popular culture. Students are familiar with the movies that came out of the Vietnam War: Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July. The soldiers in Full Metal Jacket smoke marijuana and rape Vietnamese women. In Platoon, they burn peasant villages and kill each other. Ron Kovic, the young soldier in Born on the Fourth of July, becomes a hero when he recants his patriotism and joins the antiwar movement. American Beauty’s ex-Marine is tyrannical, homophobic, and homicidal. Even Saving Private Ryan, which was intended in part as a tribute to the soldiers who fought on the beaches of Normandy and liberated villages in France, has 20 minutes of opening footage so graphic that students have told me it turned them into pacifists.

A peace curriculum, a popular culture critical of America, and an all-volunteer armed forces have widened the gulf between a civilian culture and a military culture and have made many young people, especially in privileged families, increasingly dismissive of soldiers. In a recent book, Keeping Faith, author Frank Schaeffer admits his misgivings about his son’s decision to enlist in the marines rather than enroll in a prestigious college. Then Schaeffer narrates his own conversion: He comes to appreciate Marine values and the virtues of working-class America as his son survives boot camp and gains confidence and pride. The book is a critique of a society that encourages many young Americans to look down on the military and discourages the privileged from defending our nation.

War is a terrible thing. Students should know its dark side. But they should also be asked to consider that America goes to war reluctantly, only after agonized debate or after years of provocation by reckless tyrants. We do not have to love war to understand that some wars may be necessary or to appreciate the soldier’s values: self-sacrifice, honor, loyalty, and endurance.

During a visit to schools in Indianapolis last week, I walked to each of the city’s many war memorials, including its newest, a wall containing the names of America’s Medal of Honor winners. Climbing the steps leading to the World War I Memorial, I read the names of thousands of Indiana soldiers who died in the war. Standing in the enormous vaulted room at the top of the steps, I saw no scenes of battles, no statues of soldiers with bayonets, no inscriptions glorifying war. Instead, the words carved into the building at the entrance to the memorial speak to the hope for a better world, “…to the end that peace may prevail, justice be administered, public order maintained and liberty perpetuated.”

Peter Gibbon is the author of A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness. He is a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. During the last five years, he has traveled around the country talking to students about heroes.



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