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Sunday, August 03, 2008

# Posted 3:03 AM by Patrick Porter  

POST-HEROIC? I’ve always been a little uneasy with the notion that we in the West wage post-heroic war because we live in post-heroic societies.

The argument goes like this: several converging influences have made traditional heroic world views redundant. Western societies that don’t live in almost a permanent state of emergency (like, say, Israel) are increasingly distant from the military.

They live in times of affluence and material plenty without precedent. They are very casualty averse.

Demographically, they don’t breed much anymore, certainly within Europe. A self-absorbed pursuit of longevity and wealth preoccupies them. This might even encourage them to view their family differently to most previous societies. Instead of an asset that can protect, feed and prolong the family, the state increasingly plays that role, and the child is an adored person. Crude as it is, fewer children may encourage people to value the lives of their single child more highly.

Post-heroic people are distant from the military profession and its values of self-sacrifice, the subordination of the individual to the group, and the necessity of violence. Civil society and its military protectors are increasingly distant species.

At the same time, the grim realities of warfare are visible in popular media. War can no longer be easily mythologised and romanticized. Iconic images of screaming naked Vietnamese girls, or torturers at Abu Ghraib, taint whatever high rhetoric our leaders direct at conflict. The collective memory of greater horrors of war, from the Holocaust to Hiroshima, is strong. Conversely, as we take our most precious heritage of political freedom for granted, a sense that our ancestors fought wars to safeguard values and institutions is increasingly weak.

Indeed, it is this marriage of the television age, the scars of Vietnam and material wealth that erodes the heroic ethos. The intelligentsia and tertiary-educated elites who emerged out of this era now apply a high, almost perfectionist standard to how their own states wage war. Impossible levels of restraint are expected of an activity that should be notorious for being inherently volatile and twisted by human fallibility.

With the decline of religion and the debellicisation of society, we no longer worship God or revere war. It is now celebrity, non-violent, inoffensive and vapidly commercial, that attracts our devotion.

Hence the way we prefer to fight wars: low-casualty (or even bloodless for our own side, like Kosovo in 1999); a preoccupation with force protection over risk-taking heroism; a preference for air power-driven strategies over ground operations; an obsession with media-management and public relations; no conscription, compulsion and hardly any mobilization of broader society (the Marines are at war, America is at the mall); and a judicialisation of warfare, so that some victims of malpractice in our expeditionary wars are given a hearing and compensated.

But it’s important to make a distinction: we don’t exactly live in post-heroic societies. Yet some of our leaders think we do.

Its true that civilians are more distant from the military. Its true that we enjoy unprecedented levels of comfort and peace. Its true that our mass media does make great moral demands of our war-making. But the appetite for heroism is not dead.

Opinion polls provide little evidence for the stereotype of the self-absorbed, casualty averse West. The ‘Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA)’ from the University of Maryland studied poll data following all combat deaths in the 1990s. After deaths in Somalia in 1993, all the polls taken in the succeeding week showed only a minority favouring withdrawal, with majorities favouring sending even more American troops in response to the killings. After the 1996 terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia, a Newsweek poll found 55% respondents believing America should retain its military presence there despite the deaths. The American public actually favours tougher responses following casualties.

Or picture this: on the morning of the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, in 1965, Australian visitors to the site amounted to a couple of lonely hippies. In 2005, at the 90th anniversary, it was so overcrowded with Oz visitors that the authorities had to build reinforced structures to accommodate them all. Australia’s national creation myth, of a baptism of former penal colonies into nationhood, had revived. When it came to war commemoration, it was the rebellious, anti-authoritarian 60’s that proved to be the aberration.

One final measure: there are lots of silly things about this article. But it makes one very telling point. Our world of popular entertainment, despite all of the social patterns above, reflects not a post-heroic culture but a lasting attachment to primordial ideas about heroism, evil and moral struggle:

“The Dark Knight,” then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year’s “300,” “The Dark Knight” is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans.

Conversely, time after time, left-wing films about the war on terror — films like “In The Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Redacted” — which preach moral equivalence and advocate surrender, that disrespect the military and their mission, that seem unable to distinguish the difference between America and Islamo-fascism, have bombed more spectacularly than Operation Shock and Awe.’”


Having seen some of these leftist films, I’m not sure that they do advocate surrender or disrespect the military tout court. In fact, it’s a healthy sign of Western self-criticism that these films can be made in a time of war.

But they are antiwar films of disillusionment that treat soldiers mostly as victims rather than agents, focus wholly on American atrocities rather than heroism, and do not at any point even acknowledge the broader legitimacy of America’s conflict against radical Islam. And they aren’t cinematically bad films. But they have done badly. More heroically triumphant films have prospered.

So in three major areas: public reactions to military setbacks, public attitudes to commemoration, and the depiction of war in film, we don’t straightforwardly see a post-heroic zeitgeist.

What seems to be happening is something more complex: policymakers reckon on a post-heroic society, and then their policies are interpreted as evidence of the existence of post-heroic society. They look at the Iranian hostage crisis that brought down Jimmy Carter, the Vietnam war that tore apart the Democrats, and the failure of George Bush senior to win an election even after his victory in the Gulf, and conclude that their populations are allergic to sacrifice beyond any minimum.

But just because Bill Clinton went for high altitude bombing and no bodybags, or George Bush asks Americans to keep shopping while a small fraction of society does the fighting, doesn’t mean that they have accurately read the psychology of their people. We may not all be heroic (Good Lord, the author certainly is not) but even rich, secluded and childless peoples can still revere heroism in their own, strange, 21st century way.
(14) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
Two questions that bear on this issue (in the U.S. context): 1)After 9/11, how many people joined the military (who otherwise would not have done so)?
2)What were their class backgrounds?
My sense (without having looked this up) is that there was some increase in volunteer enlistments, but there was no rush among middle-class or upper-middle-class youth
to join the military. If there had been a substantial influx, then the U.S. would not be faced with such an overstretched military now.
So the 21st-century way of 'revering heroism,' as you put it, does not seem to include signing up for military service (at least for many young people in the U.S.). What would have happened if conscription had been reintroduced -- i.e. what would have been the general public reaction? I'm not entirely sure, but this would have been an interesting test of your suggestion about the disconnect between societies and their political leaders.
 
There are plenty of individual cases of middle/upper-class people volunteering after 9/11. The CIA's campus recruitment program apparently had a huge increase in interest for a year or two following as well.

The problem with using 9/11 as a definitive test is that it became quickly obvious that, unlike Pearl Harbor, we were not facing a massed enemy of the sort that called for broad mobilization. Had we not gone to Iraq, the whole thing could have involved as many combatants as you could fit in Yankee Stadium.

Conversely, I remain of the opinion that had Bush (indeed any US president) on the morning of 9/12 called for Total War on the Arabian peninsula, there's a good chance the country would have gone along, and conscription would not have been necessary, at least not initially. Had we taken this path, no one can say where it might have led for sure.
 
I served in the USAF from 1985 to 1991, getting out after Operation Desert Storm.

I was born overseas into a US military family, and grew up in England, France, Germany, and Ireland. I came to the US in my 20s as a volunteer for USAF Officer Training School.

Graduated from OTS, I went through Tech School at Keesler AFB.

While at Keesler, a unit commander asked after my origins, my West Brit-style accent still being pretty thick.

After I gave him the precis, he remarked that this was a familiar story. He'd heard many similar stories in his career.

I suspect that America increasingly draws its military members from families with prior military connections. This leads me to suspect that the All Volunteer Force is increasingly a sort of "caste".

I don't think this is a good thing.
 
I can only answer your question anecdotally. I've served 20 years in the US Army. After 9/11, many new Soldiers that I trained or served with had enlisted out of a sense of duty. I should say that was their first response, earlier enlistees had a sense of duty as well, but 9/11 pushed it to the forefront of their minds. The Soldiers I trained were mostly middle class as far as I know. As for the other Soldiers I served with during two tours in Iraq, they run the gamut, but I doubt their were any trust-fund babies present. No matter their background, almost all served honorably, and demonstrated the qualities of heroes, in small and great ways.

I'm in my 40's and I meet lots of people my age, they tell me they had thought of enlisting once. It's a shame that they didn't they'll never really know the heroes I have served alongside.

The "overstretched military" is the result of policies put in place in the 1990's, by a citizenry eager to reap the peace dividend.
Make no mistake, lots of Soldiers were pulling long deployments to Bosnia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elswhere during that decade. It was peacekeeping though, so the strains on the military were ignored, or seen as noble and necessary. During an unpopular war however, all those old facts are now media talking points.
Thankfully, conscription wasn't revived, if you really want to break the US military, forcibly put a group of people into uniform involuntarily.
 
And we see that suggestions to institute the draft invariably come from those who oppose the military and would not mind seeing it broken.

If there were people who joined the service after 9-11 and any time since then because they valued an heroic ethos, there were others who might have joined understanding that war or fighting was a possibility who chose not to do so in the face of the certainty they would see combat.

I was directed to the WSJ editorial after writing this comment about the movie Dark Knight.

http://asecondhandconjecture.com/index.php/2008/07/15/review-of-the-dark-knight/#comment-224866

It seemed to me that without agreeing to certain premises about the world that one could not watch that movie and enjoy it. Good movies, even action/adventure that is simply meant to be fun, touch common sentiment or fail.
 
Excellent post.
You nailed it with your observation that not all of us are heroes by any measure. That doesn't mean we can't or don't appreciate what it means to be a hero, how important these people are, what we owe them, how rare they can be, how unfair it is to vilify them for political expediency, and etc.
 
A heroic society need not be a military one.
 
(1) America's military has for most of our history drawn on and constituted a somewhat separate, relatively small social group. This then always forms the nucleus of a major mobilization, as soon as that proves necessary. There is nothing remarkable or problematic about this.

(2) America's 'small wars', in terms of national economic and manpower mobilization level, have always contributed massively to the technological and organizational capability of this military nucleus. We've spent a significant amount of money on the War on Terror, but we have in so doing acquired a massive 'off-balance sheet asset': a military potential which scares the hell out of all of our likely antagonists (just ask them). Before Baghdad the idea was getting around that Western armed forces simply could not take on opponents in Third World cities, or deal with attrition of any kind. No longer.

(3) The key point here is that we have been fighting this conflict as a 'small war'. We never mobilized the nation or the economy. I personally think this was the right thing to do for several reasons, but it does mean that the social characteristics of our fighting forces today don't reveal much if anything about our society's overall attitudes around war and conflict.

I think the nation is more united than it seems. Bush and his opponents have in common a desire not to end up having to use weapons of mass destruction against dysfunctional countries around the world, and a desire to avoid having to take on the responsibility for running their countries and sorting out their problems either. Sending aid, giving concessions and fighting back on a 'small war' scale are all ways to 'fend off' problems in middle and low income countries, and give them time to deal with their own issues, rather than our having to address them decisively.

I believe Bush was right in trying to do something effective on a less than cataclysmic scale. Fighting back was also the right thing to do - I've seen foreign aid programs close up and their impact is a lot worse than welfare was domestically.

If we do as a society become ready to inflict decisive solutions I don't expect the results to be better for our opponents' neighborhoods than in previous conflicts. Very large explosions are fast, effective and cheap, Americans have supported them when provoked in the past and may well do so again. I think Bush did Arabs in particular a big favor when he deliberately chose a path that averted (at least in the short term) that sort of outcome.
 
I was National Guard.I am working class white trash in background.

My husband is a World War II vet.He is Filipino middle class.

Neither of us signed up for Iraq due to age.

However, our son in law was there.
His family is old southern aristocracy.

Some of us love our country because after living overseas we see how bad other countries are. The press stresses the tiny flaws in the US without noticing the horrors on the other side. Viet Nam is an example: One girl caught in napalm vs two million boat people, many of whom died, and the ethnic cleansing of the Chinese Vietnamese (which was so bad that it got them into a war with China).
 
re: My sense (without having looked this up) is that there was some increase in volunteer enlistments, but there was no rush among middle-class or upper-middle-class youth
to join the military. If there had been a substantial influx, then the U.S. would not be faced with such an overstretched military now.

For the first assertion I offer Pat Tilman. For the second the fact that the size of the military is set by congress, not the number of willing recruits.
 
"Some of us love our country because after living overseas we see how bad other countries are. The press stresses the tiny flaws in the US without noticing the horrors on the other side. "
Amen.
 
I think a better term is "post-modern".

The West became post-heroic a long time ago, back when we stopped regarding warfare as participatory entertainment, and started regarding it as a very serious business. Not that the transition came overnight.

And, arguably, the US is at least bi-cultural, with one culture very anti-military. The other culture is very supportive of the military, and pretty much supplies all the manpower.

The US military has had no difficulty in meeting its recruitment targets, the re-enlistment rate is quite high, and morale is good.

European societies are different.
 
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