“The world needs better villains,” says David Masciotra. The subtitle of Masciotra’s provocative essay on obligatory troop worship and compulsory displays of patriotism declares that “our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy.” So what does getting better villains have to do with fostering real democracy? And what is the meaning of a hero if he or she isn’t a member of the United States military?
For starters, it’s kind of obvious, once Masciotra points it out, that not everyone wearing the uniform is a hero. Some soldiers do bad things (sexual assault, for instance, is a major problem within military ranks). Moreover, calling all the troops heroes “insults those who actually are heroic—the soldier who runs into the line of fire to protect his division,” for example.
Also, our military hero worship is a bit cynical. Witness “the neglect and abuse veterans often suffer when returning home wounded or traumatized.” If we were genuine, we “would not settle for sloganeering, and garish tributes” but “would insist that veterans receive the best healthcare possible.” Public adoration at sporting events rings hollow, even when the American flag is as big as a football field.
And it should go without saying that worshipping American soldiers is readily mixed up with sanctioning U.S. foreign policy. The flip side of that confusion is to mistake criticism of U.S. foreign policy with disrespect for soldiers. Soldiers can be misused and abused by their government.
If not the war state, symbolized by the troops, who are democracy’s heroes? Masciotra nominates the likes of antiwar activists, litigators and legislators struggling to protect freedom of speech, social workers helping adults with developmental disabilities, hospice workers in poor neighborhoods, and inner-city teachers. Not all of them are heroes, of course, but it is worth “emphasizing the heroism of those who do commit to their clients, patients, and students with love and service,” which amounts to a major shift of values and perspective.
What kind of shift? Heroes imply villains. Military heroes kill evil foes. Terrorists are the villains of choice. This conception of heroism is “inextricably linked to violence.” Alternatively, heroes who serve the poor, sick, and oppressed confront a different kind of villain: “those who oppress, profit from inequality and poverty, and neglect the sick.” These nonviolent heroes serve democratic values.
Democracy needs heroes, but not necessarily, exclusively, or even principally heroes of violence. Mythic heroes are embedded in the human story, but they are not all warriors. The many kinds of heroes persevere eventually to triumph over some obstacle or to achieve a goal. They represent some of the best of human traits: courage, yes, but also wisdom, cleverness, endurance, commitment, devotion, and sacrifice. Their quest may be a journey of self-discovery.
Even pesky tricksters can be heroic in a democratic way by outwitting the powerful and rich who rule.