Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How The Heroes Die

Please don't thank me for my "service." I was in the military, not the "Service." Service is doing something good. Service is what the person does who fixes your car.  When the word "service" is applied to the military, it helps to justify violence as a method for conflict resolution. Like "defending our freedom," or "bringing democracy," the word "service" is used to lower the barriers of aggression. The military solution to conflict is death and destruction. That's not "service." Call it what it is - the military. If you have to hurt someone to solve a problem, you are the Problem.
- Arnold Stieber, US Army Veteran, 1970


I didn’t go to war so that my son could follow.

I didn’t go to war to be thanked for it.

And I certainly didn’t go to war so that I could be called a hero.

Last week, a reader on Facebook asked how I felt about exactly that, being thanked for my military service.

Specifically, I was asked if I agreed with Arnie Stieber, the Vietnam veteran quoted above.

I do.

And I don’t.

Stieber’s experience was not mine.

His time was not my time. His war was not my war. His military was not my military.

The United States and the US military have changed greatly since Vietnam – due in no small part to the efforts and activism of veterans like Arnold Stieber.  While I don’t entirely agree with his position I don’t disagree with it either. I understand completely where he is coming from and I can sympathize with his point of view and I can unreservedly grant that he earned it.

He's entitled to his position, but his position is not mine.

Not exactly.

I don't feel disrespected or diminished if my own service goes unacknowledged.

I don’t feel proud and heroic if it is.

I mostly don’t care if others acknowledge my veteran status or not.

Unlike Stieber and many of his fellows, I wasn’t compelled to serve. I had a choice, Stieber didn’t. War was my profession for more than two decades, I served as both enlisted and as an officer, I joined the military and stayed of my own volition – and that makes all the difference.

As I said in reply to the question, I don't advertise my military service but I don’t try to hide it either. 

I served in peace and in war, I wish for the former and despise the latter. 

Like Stieber, I have little use for those who glorify and promote war as a way to solve the world’s problems.

Unlike Stieber I pragmatically acknowledge that sometimes war is necessary. 

I don't march in parades and I don't go to protests. I don’t wave the flag and I rarely attend reunions. I’m proud of my service, I treasure my experience, I miss the men and women I served with. I was damned good at what I did and there are days I wish I was still out there doing it – and there are days I’m damned glad I’m not. 

No sane man prays for war.

No moral man hopes for death and destruction, not even for his enemies.

Nowadays I’m certain that my haircut and bearing broadcast my status to those paying attention - along with the fact that I often wear the ratty fading sweatshirts from my former commands and so it’s no secret that I’m a veteran. But I emphatically do not feel entitled to thanks from Americans for my military service – or whatever you call it, I’m not inclined to argue the semantics of it.  I went of my own free will and for my own reasons, America owes me nothing for it. I’d like to think America will make good on what I was promised, but I don’t expect it – and more on that in just a minute.

I do not demand respect as my right nor gratitude for my service.

But if thanks are given, I will gladly accept them in the spirit offered and return the compliment. If a business offers me a military discount, I will gratefully accept it. If they don't, that's perfectly fine too. Choice, freedom to choose, the right to decide to offer thanks or not, well, that's what we were doing out there, defending that. At least that’s what I was doing, others can speak for themselves.

And if you believe in liberty, if you're willing to give your life for it, then you must acknowledge people will use that freedom however they please. Some will use it to thank you for your service.

Personally I think you're a bit of a shitheel as a human being if your response to a simple thank you is a political screed and a lecture on semantics, then again that's your right. As I said, I don’t speak for other veterans.

But me? As I said, I take thanks in the spirit offered and return the compliment, one citizen to another, and it bothers me not at all.


But I draw the line at hero.


In the same conversation, a commenter proclaimed all veterans “heroes.”

She gushed on and on with glassy-eyed effluvious enthusiasm about “sacrifice” and “patriotism” and a dozen other clich├ęd platitudes and ended her comment by saying that her eyes well up with tears whenever she sees a military member out in public wearing a uniform. 

I asked her not to call me a hero, but I should have just walked away – and after she condescended to tell me what a “real” veteran is, I did because like Arnie Stieber, there are things I just cannot abide.

And hero worship is one of them.

We, most of us veterans, we’re not heroes.

I certainly am not.  Oh, sure, I’ve got a box of decorations upstairs in the back of my closet, we all do. Maybe I have a few more decorations than most, a few less than others. Maybe someday long after I’m gone my son will find that box and wonder at those bits of fading cloth and tarnished metal.  Maybe he’ll read the commendations and be proud of his old man, just as I once did.  But goddamn it, I’d far rather have him boggle in horror at the idea of war, I’d far rather have war be so long forgotten that those decorations are nothing but curiosities of a primitive and violent history, one that his generation has long moved beyond.

I didn’t go to war so that my son could follow.

We are not Spartans.

We are not Romans.

We are not Nazis.

We are not some military society who worships war and glorifies battle as some great heroic ideal and spawns generations of warriors. In America, mothers don’t tell their sons and husbands to come home with their shields or carried upon them.  Or a least they damned well shouldn’t.

We are a free people, we are Americans. For us there should be nothing glorious about war. 

We should honor the soldier, certainly, but we should honor the peacemakers to a far greater degree.

As I’ve said here and elsewhere more times than I can count: war is a dirty horrible business and make no mistake about it. War should be the last resort, when all else has failed and the very safety of liberty is endangered. 

War is hell. War is violent and terrible and immoral. Certainly there may be acts of heroism and valor in war, but there are also endless acts of craven cowardice and ignorant stupidity and wanton violence and vicious cruelty – just as in any other human endeavor.  War should always be a last resort, embarked upon only under the most dire of necessity and not some goddamned glorious spectacle.

We go to war because we have to, and for no other reason.

While it’s certainly true that, as Orwell and Churchill both said, the nation sleeps snug in its bed only because rough men stand ready to do violence on its behalf, to paint us all as generic “heroes” leaches the word of meaning and power and diminishes those acts that truly are heroic and worthy of great respect.

But it’s much, much worse than that.

To paint all veterans as heroes, superior above other citizens, worthy of worship and compulsory respect, gives lie to the equality of democracy and makes such status enviable.

That, right there, is why Stolen Valor is such a thriving business.

That, right there, is why our society is a brim with military fakers and ersatz war heroes.  They show up at every parade and hang out in front of the VA, they polish their stolen medals to a golden glow and tell stolen war stories replete with glorious battles that exist only in their minds, all with false aw shucks humility and grim steely-eyed false heroism.

And they lap it up, your wide eyed unquestioning admiration, because it feeds their empty souls.

These people are parasites, thriving on our mandatory respect and wide-eyed unconditional hero worship. They exist because of your admiration, without it they would wither and die. But the damage they do is limited and they are typically found out and shamed when their duplicity crosses that of a real veteran.

Far, far worse than the posers, this national hero worship compels the dull-witted and the small and mean to join up for all the wrong reasons.

There is little worse in the ranks, and nothing worse – absolutely nothing – in the officer corps, than those who want to be heroes.

We’ve all encountered them, those of us who served.  The commanders and the lieutenants and the majors who practice their Medal of Honor acceptance speech in front of the shaving mirror each morning, the one that begins, “Thank you Mr. President, I’m sorry all my men were killed, but I’m grateful to accept this award on their behalf…”  We’ve all served under the senior NCO who dreamed of a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and the tales of glory he would tell to the doe-eyed girls back home who would then coo over his manly scars and jump ready and eager into bed with a hero.

Those are the kind of people who get other soldiers killed.

They’re not there to defend the country, the oath means nothing to them, they crave only glory and the admiration of a grateful nation.

Worst of all, writ large, this idea makes war itself desirable, for only in such a crucible can heroism be forged.

And then war becomes the norm instead of the exception.

But it’s all a lie, for you see heroes are not people.

Heroes are symbols, objects to be worshiped and admired and fawned over.

And then forgotten when new ones come along.

Heroes don’t make mistakes. Heroes don’t die from friendly fire. Heroes don’t bomb a wedding or a school. Heroes don’t get PTSD. Heroes don’t come home broken. Heroes don’t wake up screaming covered in sweat, night after night. Heroes don’t need help. Heroes don’t end up on the street. Heroes don’t wonder where their next meal is coming from, or how they’ll pay the mortgage. Heroes don’t end up addicted to booze and drugs trying to cope with the pain. Heroes don’t mind that you look at them with uneasy fear, wondering if, when, they’re going to snap – heroes don’t snap.

And, after the war, heroes don’t need education or retraining or help buying a house or easy access to VA medical care. In fact, heroes, well, they don’t need any of those things you promised back when you were terrified and desperate for rough men to do violence on your behalf.

Heroes just need a parade and the easy thanks of a yellow magnet stuck on the back of your car.

Calling us heroes taints your thinking, it biases your viewpoint no differently than painting all veterans as “baby killers” did a generation ago.

Mostly we veterans are just people who came when called and did our best under terrible circumstances.

If you truly wish to honor those who put their own precious selves between home and war’s desolation, then you wouldn’t call them heroes.

Instead you’d make them obsolete.

I didn’t go to war so that my son could follow.

If you want to honor veterans, try living up to the promises you made when you called us to war. That would be a start. Make good on the medical care. Make good on the education. Make good on the support for our families. Pay up and pay up promptly. Hold your elected leaders to account and make them do it or throw the cowardly sons of bitches out of office when they won’t. That would be better than all the empty thanks and the parades and the yellow ribbons.

If you truly wish to honor all the men and women who have served this nation, who have given their lives, who stood ready to do violence in your name, then you would do your utmost to keep our children, indeed all the generations who follow, from having to make the same bitter sacrifice.

Wars are caused by unbridled hate, by intolerant fanaticism, by selfish idealism, by religious extremism, by hunger and poverty and inequality, by bigotry and greed and fear.

If you wish to honor the warrior, truly honor the warrior, then you would do those things which make war less likely.

You would elect leaders who don’t see military action as the first option, or even the second, or the third.

You would elect leaders of reason and judgment, those who are loudly and forcefully reluctant to waste the lives of their fellows and the treasury of their nation.

You would elect leaders who set the example of citizenship, who are willing to listen to each other, to compromise and work together for the good of us all, who don’t go around spewing hate and fear and glassy-eyed fanatical jingoism and simple-minded patriotism.

Yes, you build a strong and well equipped military, of course you do, for defense. You don’t go around finding excuses to use it all the goddamned time. You don’t throw more lives away for political posturing, for imagined slights, for profit, for pride.

More importantly you give equal or greater effort and resources towards those things that make war unnecessary. 

You feed the hungry, you clothe the poor, you heal the sick, you employ the able, you educate the next generation, you pay your taxes, you stop looking at your neighbors as the enemy, you give back, you invest in the future, you dream of the stars, and you remember we’re all in this together. 

If you want to honor veterans, then don’t call them heroes. That’s the easy way out.

If you want to honor veterans, then live up to the ideals they fought to defend.

I didn’t go to war so that my son could follow.

I went with the hope he would never have to.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Soldier, General, President


  1. Replies
    1. And years later you are a hero for the service you render now. The examination of the psyche and soul of patriotism. Keep turning swords into plowshares, you modern Cincinnatus

  2. Thank you for your comments. I have nothing to add. Ed Haines, COL, Ret, Army Medical Corps

  3. Barbara Hambly's Dragonsbane features the theme of what a real hero is. It's also a terrific story and a great book. (Oh, and "latter," not "later" and "their," not "theirs.")

  4. Thank you for writing this...Thank you for saying your truth out loud, and thank you for risking your life in the military, whatever your motivations. Hard Work and sacrifice SHOULD be rewarded and respected.

  5. I really wish my first husband were still alive to witness this, and to read things like this. His experience left him broken. He came home to a society which refused to allow him to even give voice to his brokeness, without being scorned, derided and downright abused by people that never even served. He took his own life on my 21st birthday after beating me up, over what I now know was a trigger situation. He promised he would never do it again, and made damn good on that promise. So, we now praise all vets, the rhetoric is changed for sure, but the song still remains the same. I know that Lonnie would NEVER have wanted anyone to call him a hero after what he did in Viet Nam, but the flip side of that same coin is, I bet he would have given anything to not have the VA call him a coward for wanting mental help. Jim, I appreciate you giving Mr. Steiber the respect of allowing him his point of view without judgement.

    1. I was just about to comment how the nation seems to have careened from one extreme to the other - from the condemnation of soldiers during the Vietnam era to the over glorification of today.

      Hopefully, sometime soon, we'll find our collective balance on the subject.

    2. Ms Scott, your post made my eyes leak! So few know the true cost of war.

    3. Thank you Ms. Scott, for sharing.

  6. "What HE said" with one personal exception. I personally find reflexive platitudes annoying. Like saying "Bless You" after a sneeze, it's a habit and a reflexive response without any thought or concern for the sneezer, or even for the response itself.

    "Thank you for your service" has become the new fashionable hipster response to someone who has spent any time in the military" When it's said to me by a fellow member of the military (current or former), I may feel a sense of solidarity or comradery.

    Someone who has been dishonorably discharged is also technically a veteran. Maybe they were booted out for smuggling drugs aboard ship. Yeah that's NEVER happened, right? Yet they still get the same "Thank you for your service".

    If you mean it say it, and I'll respond with a genuine "thank you." But if you're just being polite, or fashionable or hipster or politically correct, then please just STFU.

    1. Maybe they did serve heroically other than the drug smuggling.

    2. Speaking only for myself, I say, "Thank you for your service," because I mean it and know no other words to express my thoughts. When I see service persons, I momentarily feel a glimpse of the fear I would feel if I had to serve in that way. I respect their choice to face the unknown, the possible horrors of war. I'm so thankful that they are there to make us safer. I am very heartened to see your view that war should be our very last choice, and you've given me a new perspective about idolizing soldiers. Thank you for your thought provoking, insightful words.

    3. When close friends/family sneeze around me , I say thank you - now shut up.

  7. My grandfather served in the Army in WWII flying fighter planes. He was there (fortunately for him, on the island instead of the ships) when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He would agree with all of this. He did what he had to do, but he sure as shit wouldn't want anyone else to have to do it.

    Funny how an essay like this makes me feel more patriotic and connected to my country than any other gun-waving or warmongering ever could.

    Thank you, Jim. For your writing even more than your military time. I am grateful that you are using that experience to share with us and hopefully open some eyes and minds to the rest of the story. You're one hell of a guy.

  8. More than a hero you are a real man!

    1. Remember Veterans are the ones who returned home. I would prefer to commemorate the deceased soldiers rather than celebrate veterans. Memorial Day is so much more meaningful than Armistice expanded to all those who did not die in war.

  9. Yes! Yes, yes yes.

    Can't recall which of the founders were supposed to have said/written it, but similar to what you have written, I think it went something like this: I am a warrior, that my son may be a farmer, that HIS son may be a poet. That all could pull together to get this done--that might actually get me to pray. (And that's a mighty tall order, I'm here to tell you.)

    Gretchen in KS

    1. John Quincy Adams said it--the actual quote is: "I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet.” JML--Greenbelt, Md.

    2. Here is the exact quote:

      "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

      John Adams

    3. Beautifully said. I hope that one day we can make John Adams proud by accomplishing exactly this.

  10. Jim, A truly excellent post.

  11. "Heroes don’t mind that you look at them with uneasy fear, wondering if, when, you’re going to snap. " I think you meant "they're" where you have "you're."

    But damn, just, damn. This one is going to take some soul searching, re-reading, and talking to people for me to get my head around.

  12. "I do not demand respect as my right nor gratitude for my service."

    "But if thanks are given, I will gladly accept them in the spirit offered and return the compliment. If a business offers me a military discount, I will gratefully accept it. If they don't, that's perfectly fine too. Choice, freedom to choose, the right to decide to offer thanks or not, well, that's what we were doing out there, defending that. At least that’s what I was doing, others can speak for themselves."

    I have a few friends who are veterens and some that are still active members... they are mainly my friends first, and their job or former military service isn't why they are my friends, but all of them who are my friends, I think share in common the above sentiment.

    For some of them it's a career, just another job... for others it's a calling and a job, but one they fully embrace and get great fulfillment in doing... but all of them - even those critical of the mission or the leaders - deserve at least our attention. They are ostensibly doing something the rest of us are unwilling to do, and for the most part they aren't doing it to blow shit up...

    If I had gone, that would have been my reason,... and I probably would have lost myself in the killing. That's why I didn't go. That's why I'm a pacifist... that's why I have deep respect for my friends, and all the other military service men and women or vets I have yet to meet. Because they are doing or have done something I can't and usually for all the right reasons. Because they care about the rest of us [those friends I mention do anyway], even the assholes among us.

    I was pretty moved by this Jim, especially after hearing about some of the more incredible stories of the Medal of Honor winner's ... and every story seems to have one thing in common... they weren't being "heroic"... they were doing what they had to do to save lives. They were doing exactly what they saw their job was to do.

    And for that and for what my friends have gone through or might go through, I respect them deeply, but like you, I also hope one day their jobs simply won't exist (out of peace of course).

  13. Stuart in CincinnatiJanuary 20, 2015 at 4:42 PM

    When I hear people saying all solders are heroes, I have two big problems. First, there are so many jobs in the military that are really no different from civilian jobs, admittedly, many have been outsourced, but even so, the guy who fuels aircraft at a stateside base is no more a hero than the one who works on the other side of the fence gassing up jets for Delta, Same for the mechanics who fix the Humvees.... Put them in Harm's way and the odds for heroism go up, but they are still not guaranteed that status. To me heroism means to go further than you thought you could, or to take a great risk because something needed you to do so.. That is heroism, just showing up for work in a special shit isn't. And the second reason is that heroes should be rare. If our military made people into heroes every day. it would be a terrible thing.

    Jim hasn't told many war stories here, and if he says he's not a Hero, I'll take him at his word, but I think the wives and children of some Iranian fishermen might feel differently if they ever knew the change that Jim Wright prevented from happening in their lives. ( I cannot find that story, perhaps somebody else can link it).

    1. I'd prefer we not talk about that last bit, Stuart. I'm proud of my actions and that of my men, but that's not something I prefer to talk about publicly.

    2. Agree, Stuart. The label "hero" should not be bestowed lightly. Might I add, too, that not everyone who has worn a military uniform has done so honorably. Same with law enforcement officers. Some abuse their position and power. Calling them automatic "heroes" cheapens the term.

    3. My best friend served 42 months in country, Vietnam; he asked me once " What's the difference between a fairy tale and a war story.... One starts off 'once upon a time', the other ' now this ain't no shit'"


    4. And it turns out, that Mr. Wright is indeed a hero after all. I just hope you've been properly thanked.

  14. No words. These are things that I have thought, have believed in and carry with me today and you have expressed them so, so eloquently. Thank you.

  15. Excellent essay Jim, as usual. Thank you.

  16. Wisdom, when what we see around us is oversimplification on all sides.

    Thank you - for that.

  17. Wow! Jim, I am honored to know you. This is such a excellent essay. Thank you.

  18. “I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet.”
    ― John Quincy Adams

  19. Thank you for choosing each of your careers :)
    Teresa Morgan-Bayne
    Las Vegas NV

  20. I'm not a veteran but there have been quite a few in my family. My big brother was in Vietnam. I was in Lower Manhattan on 9/11 (under the Towers actually, in the train station), and then volunteered . I worked for nearly 9 months in the World Trade Center recovery and I cannot tell you how many times cops and firefighters said the same thing- "I'm not a hero. I just did my job." And somehow I thought that was the most heroic thing they could have said. And the most human. Thank you so much for writing this. It was a heartwrenching read and one I hope will make those of us who never wore a uniform do better by those who have.- Debora Jackson

  21. Thank you for this, Mr. Wright.
    In other contexts I may jocularly call you by your first name, but in this post I can only call you this. Thank you.

  22. Once again I'm trying to fathom why Jim Wright is not a sane "talking head" on our televisions. How are people looking over this guy?!?

    Jim, thank you for saying what really needs to be said in time of bizarre nationalism run amok. I would seem the people farthest removed from danger and the battlefield seek war the most.

    1. Because you can't muzzle him. Because he says what he thinks without filters beyond common sense.

  23. Its "Tommy this, and Tommy that,
    And lock 'im up the brute."
    But 'es 'ero of the Nation,
    When the guns begin to shoot.
    Rudyard Kipling

    Jaw jaw is better than War war

    101 years ago Sir Edward Grey the British Foriegn Secretary pleaded, cajoled, and down-right lied to, the other Great Powers to try to prevent war.

    67 years ago Chamberlain landed himself with the unfair memory of being an appeaser, because frankly at the time nobody realised what a lunatic Hitler was. (Overlooked is the fact that Britain started preparing for war in 1936 - The Ruhr dams were identified as targets, and preparations for heavy bombing against London were started 3 years before Poland was invaded)

    Yet now we celebrate war - too many demanding "Something Must Be Done", especially in the US - I think its because you feel a long way from danger with a huge military: it be a pity not to get the toys on the table.

    It turns out a shrinking world doesn't engender brotherhood - it just makes it easier to find people to hate.

    Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won
    The Duke of Wellington

  24. Jim,
    Your comment on not wanting your son to ever go to war made me catch my breath. I would be horrified to see my gentle 15-year-old (who now towers over me) being put in a situation where he would have to kill, particularly for objectives that only a venal politician or a cat-torturing sadist could possibly classify as 'defense' of America.
    I went into the Navy mostly because they offered me flight school, and my years of active duty honed my ideas of 'heroism' and 'defending freedom' to pretty much the same shape as your thoughts. The mindless jingoism and obligatory genuflecting to anyone in a uniform these days are not a sign of a healthy republic or a well-informed citizenry.
    I would not trade away my military experiences and the great shipmates I met, many of whom remain close friends, On the other hand, the most heroic thing I can come up with from my experience is actually keeping down some of the lunches served in the 'dirty shirt' wardroom.

    -Walter Krumholz, Triple Centurion in ready room All Officer Meetings.

    1. Thank you. You sound like my Kevin Scott here but then, you often do.

  25. I spent three years in the Navy, from '84 - '87. There were no wars at the time, and I'm a woman, so at that time, even if there had been trouble, I would not have been allowed anywhere near it. I served on a sub tender that barely left port. I loved my job, loved my ship, and loved most of my shipmates - but I am always very uncomfortable on Veteran's Day when my Facebook friends start thanking me for my service, and when our town leaders invite me to march in the parade. I always feel I need to qualify my veteran label with "but not THAT kind of vet!" so that people don't keep trying to thank me. I'm not ashamed of my military experience - far from it - but it feels deeply wrong to me to receive praise or thanks for it.

    1. I was Regular Army served from 70-73..never left the States..I am also proud that I volunteered during a time of war, but feel a like a fraud when thanked for my service. I know too many "real" vets, who are still carrying the wounds, mostly in their heads and in their hearts from what they saw and did, to be comfortable being classified as one who really paid the price that war extracts.

      I grew up as an Army Brat...my Dad served in the Pacific in WW2..he never talked about the war, but had a tough time for the first 8-10 years after. While he was proud of me for my actions, he was terribly sad that I chose to do so, and was very relieved when I drew the duty that I did. When the time came for my son to decide whether to enlist after 9/11, I like my Dad before me, did not try to dissuade him from doing so, but oh man, was I happy that he decided that taking care of his wife and little kids was his first responsibility .

      Mr Wright..you have a wonderful way with words, and you speak directly to my heart in a way that I am very grateful for.

      Rick Morton

  26. I am the first generation of my family in centuries not to have been in the military and I grew up on stories of the army... but I have never heard such a true and clear statement about the purpose of military force. Thank you for your service - the service of explaining what we should already know but so often do not.

  27. “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. "

    That was of course General William Tecumseh Sherman, to the people of Atlanta.

    Some more Sherman, and one reason why he was the greatest American general of all time: he knew what he was up to when he went to war, he did not hide behind false Victorian sentiment.

    “I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

    Unfortunately those who have never heard a shot are those who lead us into war.

    "I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”

    The South planned guerrilla warfare after their defeat. Sherman stopped that before it began:

    “We can make war so terrible and make [the South] so sick of war that generations pass away before they again appeal to it.”

    And he did.

    Too bad nobody in America studies history today, or they would know better. So it goes.

  28. Huh. If I am a hero, it's not because I spent so many years in the Army, it's because of all the days and all the years I have spent going into dangerous and impoverished neighborhoods trying to ease the suffering of those who can not help themselves. I march into more danger as a social worker-type than I ever marched into as a soldier.

    1. Well said, my wife spent 15 years doing social work with battered children. She was threatened more than once and NEVER really appreciated for the 70 or 80 hours a week she worked. And in the end was discarded like a used Kleenex.


  29. Thank you for speaking your truth that so many others are afraid to give voice to.

  30. When I got to Iraq in 2004 (in a non-combatant position), the first death I knew of was a Department of State officer who took a tiny bit of mortar shrapnel while showering. In the eyes of the majority of Americans who do not put themselves in harms way, those that do are heroes whether or not they take that label upon themselves.

  31. *pointing all the way up to Jim's main post* ^^^^^^^



    I volunteered to serve, perhaps naively, but did my best to contribute wherever I was assigned -- tank crewman, company clerk, truck driver, reporter, documentarian. And now my daughter revels in serving by gathering support and using her vacation to go to Central America or the Southeast U.S. to help those less fortunate than her. May her yet-to-be child serve in even more wonderful and peaceful ways.

    Scott Burnell
    1st AD '86-'92

  32. In one of my roles in life I have served as a mentor to others. If I teach them nothing else, I try to teach them this: "Say that which needs to be said to those who need to hear it."

    You have said that which needs to be said, and said it better and more eloquently than anyone else I can think of. I can only fervently, desperately hope that those who need most to hear it are actually listening. Bravo.

  33. Thank you. I always finish your essays in deep thought.

  34. Thanks, Jim.

    I tell people that veterans that expect thanks joined for the wrong reason. My grandfather was drafted in 1943, and he told me he never expected or deserved thanks.

    Our freedoms are not due to veterans, either; China has a huge military (and lots of vets), does that mean they are free? Military might merely serves as a means of enforcing our policy on other nations. We owe our freedom to the Constitution of the US, and when that document becomes a dead letter, freedom will have passed from this land.

    Keep writing. Thanks.

  35. I attended 4 years of a prestigious military college-prep school, after
    which I had no desire to serve in any military capacity. That is a choice
    that I would gladly go back and re-think, if for no other reason than
    knowing that I had been willing to stand between my country, family, and
    home, and those who would do it harm. You have my respect and thanks for
    what you did and still do. In retrospect, my medical issues would have kept
    me from serving, but at least I could have been turned away by the doctors
    rather than never going to sign up at all.

  36. Your words are golden, Jim. My father, a WWll vet who did not see combat, but was trained told me that the only thing he learned in the Army was, " to kill people." He served most of his time as a payroll clerk and was grateful to receive money for college and for the loan on a first home. He certainly never relived his war years or celebrated being a veteran in any way. He did spend time out in the San Francisco harbor with thousands of other men waiting to go to Japan for a terrible battle, but an atomic bomb was dropped and the ships turned around. He was a prepared to do his best for his country.
    My husband was drafted during the Vietnam era and said that he was also " taught to kill people". Luckily he was a talented college drummer and became a member of the Army band. He always says that he never considers that he did anything of importance during his time in the Army - but I disagree, he did his best for his country.
    Going back in history - My great great grandfather became a member of the Confederate Army after the Texas Militia was forced to do so. Williamson County in Texas, where he lived voted NOT to join the Confederacy and it is family lore that he was in agreement. I read a letter that he wrote to my gggrandmother - he was afraid that his life might end at the age of 21. He refused to have a Confederate Cross put on his grave because he was not "proud" of this time in the army, but I think he did his best to protect Texas.

    Going back further in history to my 6 great grandfather, Willliam Witcher, of Virginia. I read that he signed papers saying that he and a group of his friends had denied allegiance to King George of England. The outcome of the Revolutionary War would determine their future. They could be executed for treason. He served as a Captain in that war. I do not know what he thought about his "service" to his country, but I think he did his best to help build this country.
    I think that all of these men would appreciate your words. We are not " flag wavers" in our family - mostly progressive thinkers who taught me that war is all about " killing people " and nothing to brag about.

  37. Heroes? They might have worked for Morgan Stanley in NYC. They might have served with Plumly and Moore at Ia Drang. They might have been photographed there by Galloway. They might have gone back up that terrible day, just to be sure no other Morgan Stanley folks were still up there. They might have been Rick. Two of my old Morgan Stanley friends are alive today, they owe their lives to a Cornish fellow, named Rick Rescorla who went back up.

    1. The rick rescorla? History really is a flat circle.

    2. I wondered if you were going 'there'. From all accounts a good and decent man I would have loved to have known.


  38. "I didn’t go to war so that my son could follow.

    I went with the hope he would never have to."

    So say we all, Jim.

    My grandfather, shot down over Poland, Nazi POW, marched cross country in the dead of winter on which about half his fellow POWs died? He would be proud of you if he were still alive to read this, too.

    Thank you for your Service, and for your Words. I appreciate both of them.

  39. How easy is faint praise when there is no context for it? We sit, safe and warm in our houses, and fly into mock outrage when someone threatens our "patriotic ideals" because to do otherwise invites criticism. We spout words without meaning and decry people exercising the very freedoms that the military is charged with defending (makes me wonder how many even know the oath).

    I've made it a point to never say I honor a veteran's service. I have said, on rare occasions, that I honor their sacrifice. Because it seems to me that even the most mundane of peace time deployments requires a sacrifice and a potentially larger sacrifice. I hope that my choice in this is better than the "glassy eyed" fan boy/girl response all too common these days.

    C.L. Cullen

  40. Thank you for your rationality, perception, and writing skills.

  41. Jim, you haven't changed your mind, have you. You responded to me almost exactly the same some time ago: http://yellowdogpolitics.com/2012/05/30/thank-you-for-your-service/

  42. This should be required reading for everyone - especially those of us such as me who have never (whether voluntarily or otherwise) served in any branch of this nation's military.

  43. Beautifully said. Thank you for THIS service.
    Now, maybe you could run for office? :)

  44. I hope you eventually publish a book of your essays and that it remains on the New York Times best seller list for a decade or so. Stay out of politics.

    We went to war to put an end to Osama bin Laden. It morphed into a regional conflict based on bad intelligence ginned up by an administration too willing to go over to the dark side. Critics were silenced, absolutely. The press did not do its job. How do we avoid repeating this again and again?

  45. Once again, you knocked the ball right out of the park with this essay, Jim. I printed it and shared it with my 15-year-old grandson who's in the ROTC. His assignment: read it (all six pages), take notes, and we will discuss it tomorrow. That's what he gets for having to stay after school today for detention. Oh, I told him he could share it with his officer. I don't think this is a punishment. Hopefully, he'll thank me--and you.

  46. Very well, no "thank you for your service, Jim". However, thank you for conducting an honorable career in an exemplary manner and emerging with an incredibly articulate command of common sense. I did my hitch, was good at my specialty, but thank goodness was never faced with the prospect of taking a life.

  47. Thank you for your words, Jim. Dead on the mark, as usual. I'd also point out the "economics" of the word "hero". A word, like a currency, can be devalued through oversupply. To call everyone in any uniform a "hero" is to dilute its meaning. You already know this. Maybe the rest of us can stop watering it down by careless use. We will know a hero by her/his actions, not by their uniform or lack thereof. Maybe the word "hero" needs a bit of a rest.

    The word "meme" could really use a long, long rest.

    Also the phrase "baby bump". Maybe not so much a rest as a dirt nap. Just saying.

  48. Thank you! All Americans should read this, and hopefully they will.

  49. My father served in World War II,he needed three chances before the Army would take him(flat feet and high blood pressure).He served stateside and he gave his best.I don't know about heroes,but I respect and honor anyone who steps up and does the right thing when the time comes in their lives.

  50. I have two comments, but I am going to roll them into one. First, I have always been uncomfortable with being thanked for my service. If someone feels compelled to say anything to me about being a marine, I would rather hear "welcome home" While in many ways I never came home, it seems less grating. I didn't just serve the person their meal, after all. The thing is heroes, you are entirely right. But, I would probably rather have the term applied to other veterans than I would to athletes, politicians or any other category of that ilk.

  51. From your mouth to whoever is listening but the sad truth of this country is that we ARE warmongers. We have been engaged in one war or another for nearly every year of our existence.

  52. "We are not some military society who worships war and glorifies battle as some great heroic ideal and spawns generations of warriors."

    Except we are. You need look no further than our federal budget, in which near or more than HALF of which goes to military spending, more than the next 14 other nations combined, and that wretched "American Sniper" movie to see that's exactly what we are.

    Wannabe Spartans. A nation who revels in the idea of "Red Dawn", of single gunmen taking down thugs and hoods and bad guys (Who are usually ethnic and/or poor) with well placed shots from the hip, fast draw and all, because that's how a real hero does shit. A nation who ONLY invades nations who are either no threat to them, or have something they want, as long as it doesn't upset some other nation whose leaders our leader is tight with (Bush and Saudi Arabia, anyone?), because we're not getting our asses kicked again, except when we do.

    We are supreme in our arrogance. We're the Roman Empire. And we'll likely fall the same way, because the people in charge are so sure of their exceptionalism and infallibility, and blind to history.

  53. I don't think I've been following your blog for even a year yet, and have PLENTY of back blog to still go through, but as time goes on I'm finding you to be one of the most honorable men I've ever run across. In person or online.
    Once again, excellent, excellent piece. As someone else here called for, please put some of your essays into a book.
    I've been recommending two books over the past decade, A CHORUS OF STONES by Susan Griffin and ON KILLING by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, to convey much the same information you were able to in just this one essay.
    I don't think you are a hero. You are an honorable man, and a writer.

  54. About twelve years ago or so I put a "Veteran" plate on my car. You see I felt strongly that we were doing the wrong thing biting into what was going to be a near-endless war that Dubya and his henchmen wanted. I figured if I was going to say things against it, I ought to be able to demonstrate in some little way that I knew something about it myself

    You see, I volunteered once upon a time. I spent two years teaching in a Federal program in the inner city and when my two years were up, I was guaranteed an occupational deferment if I wanted to stay and teach in the barios some more. I did, but the politics were such that there was no guarantee that funding was going to be there, and besides, teaching the socially disadvantaged was sort of perversely contrary to the educational system status quo, so those of us who were in the National Teacher Corps weren't exactly welcomed with open arms.

    So by the time the funding was there and I was offered my new job, I had looked carefully at the entire situation. For the first time since I had been in college, i wondered why I, having had the great good fortune of being born white and on on side of the tracks should necessarily be deferred from the great experience of Vietnam. Especially when some of my eight grade students were likely going to be drafted the next year and sent to a place to get shot at by people they weren't mad at.

    So I volunteered and then I volunteered again for the war.

    No only those who volunteer get a chance to go to war at all. And unlike those of us who didn't have much of a choice, they are proclaimed as heroes. Really?

    Well, now, I have a problem with the entire system and I wonder if you might have a comment to make here also. You see, I am more and more uncomfortable with our all volunteer, professional (read: mercenary) military. The biggest problem that I see with it all front and center, is that it is all too easy for someone with a little power....or perhaps that's someone with a little brain and less real education and a whole lot of power....to just "send in the troops" instead of learning about and completely negotiating all other options. Oh, it's all so easy: with a snap of the fingers three brigades can be landed almost anywhere to kick some ass.

    It really seems to me that in our democratic republic, our military should be an instrument of last resort. But more important, it should be not a large, powerful professional force, but a force made up almost entirely of civilians who SERVE instead of "mercenary" soldiers to do it all for a living.

    That's the way it used to be in the days of Selective Service. And I think it was better. In fact, as outrageous as it sounds, I think we should go back to the old system, only with one caveat: EVERYone serves. Right out of high school, or right out of college, EVERY young person....male, female, gay, straight or handicapped all get a chance to "SERVE" for at least two years. It may be in the armed forces, or digging ditches in a community that has lost all its roads in a mudslide, but everyone SERVES.

    If that were the rule, then I think I wouldn't blanch a bit when people say, "Thank you for your service." And I could cheerfully say in return, "Thank you for yours."

  55. Jim, you echo my sentiments exactly. It drives me mad every time people fetishize the military to the point of thinking soldiers to be supermen. My little brother, and my best friend, are real human beings with real human needs, and the hero-worship makes it ever more difficult for them to see those needs met. I wrote something very similar (though with less gravitas, I must admit) some years ago, right here.


    Thank you for writing this. More people need to realize the same thing.

  56. Jack, in Ohio:
    Thank you for writing with clarity what I've felt for quite some time. I served during PGW One, chose to go to the desert for my own reasons, and have spent the following years trying to understand why any of it happened in the first place. I'm not here to start a debate about foreign policy, though. And just want to say, as a veteran, father, and citizen - you've got it right with this one.

  57. Amen, brother, and thanks for saying it. And I hope your son never has to go to war.

    Paul Cooper (former QM3/SS)

  58. Thank you Jim. My father served in WWII (Army Air Corps) and I during Vietnam (USAF). Neither of us saw combat, but both proud to have done our part in have served in the military during a time of war. I've evolved from a subject of the John Wayne type WWII propaganda movies that I grew up on to a 70 year old that desires to avoid war as much as possible. I hated the hippies when I was a kid in the service, but have come to conclude that they saw aspects that I was too narrow minded to see back then. Consequently, I've studied our war history with much interest. I've also come to where I appreciate you insight on wars, heroes and the nuttiness that permeates our society on the subject. I've also come to adopt MLK's adage that "Our lives began to end the day we stay quiet about things that matter." Keep up the good work... speaking truth to power is something is in short supply.

  59. I thought you were channeling my dad with this piece. While he too was an officer and an enlisted soldier for a couple of decades, he is MY hero because of the man he is. He came home from Vietnam after 3 tours, and once he left the military because of medical issues, he got on with his life. There are no medals on the wall in cases, no hats with his insignia. He went on to work a complete other career, get two degrees, and all with a disability that would sideline many. To him, it's just part of life he has to deal with. He's a gentle man but he doesn't suffer fools or put up with bullshit. He coddles my mother, telling her he wants to take care of her the way she took care of the 4 of us kids and the home, while he was on active duty. He never glorifies war or his military life, and in our family, we track relatives back to those who were serving in the Revolutionary war, to those who are now serving......and hope that one day the next generations won't have to. I guess that why my dad is my hero. Thank you for your writing and for sharing your opinions with the rest of us.

  60. Thank you for this, I do thank the Veterans for ensuring we have the freedoms that we have today. I may call it service because I grew up saying my father was in the Service. For so many of these veterans, this "service, comes with a high price. My father was a WWII veteran who died in 1961, I was 8, partly because of injuries he got in the war. My husband is a Vietnam vet who still has war "dreams" which he acts out in his sleep. I found him once in a closet, where he told me, I told you to get down. There have been other instances where he has lashed out in his sleep, lucky I'm a light sleeper and can move before getting hit. Sometimes he cries, sometimes he's mad. Luckily for him, he never remembers his dreams. I have two grandsons, 16 and 17 years old. I don't want them to go to war and would gladly help them go anywhere to keep from "serving". Not very patriotic I know, but it's the way I feel. Some of these people in charge are far too willing to send other people's children, husbands, and fathers to be killed while making sure their own children are exempt.

  61. Sorry, I should have included this in my previous rant but I keep remembering "Chesty" Pullman who was left horribly disabled during Vietnam and his battle for Veterans when he got back. He was touted as a hero and an example to others. Yet so many years later the war killed him, even though he took his own life.

  62. "You would elect leaders who don’t see military action as the first option, or even the second, or the third.

    You would elect leaders of reason and judgment, those who are loudly and forcefully reluctant to waste the lives of their fellows and the treasury of their nation.

    You would elect leaders who set the example of citizenship, who are willing to listen to each other, to compromise and work together for the good of us all, who don’t go around spewing hate and fear and glassy-eyed fanatical jingoism and simple-minded patriotism."

    I am hoping that we, up here in Canada, have done just that with our new Prime Minister and his Cabinet & Caucus. You have stated, far more eloquently than I,exactly what those of us who were opposed to the actions of our former Prime Minister, have been trying to make our fellow citizens understand. I have hope for our future and I hope that you and the members of my family in the US succeed in voting into office a President and Government who feel the same.

    1. "I have hope for our future and I hope that you and the members of my family in the US succeed in voting into office a President and Government who feel the same".

      Sadly ... that proved to not be the case! :'(

  63. "They sleep safely in their beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do them harm." George Orwell /salute //Shelley

  64. Thank you for putting into words something I've struggled to express when confronted with the fetishization of military service - usually by the same people who continue to vote for politicians who vote against support for veterans or who think a new war would be dandy.

  65. You're a damn good writer. I spent my two years during Vietnam playing piccolo in the Parris Island Field Band. I recently published a book called "Buddhism for Dudes" with Wisdom Publications, and when the distributor (Simon & Schuster) found out I'd been in the Marines, they forced me to add a subtitle, for marketing purposes: A Jarhead's Field Guide to Mindfulness. I despise every word in that subtitle, and when I speak at book events, I apologize for it. I spent 1/30th of my life in the Corps, and 1/3 of my life on the mean streets of a major city doing case management for veterans coming out of prison, and teaching elementary school in Sri Lanka, where you walk only where the land mines have been cleared. I love being a Marine and am grateful for all the training. It toughened me up for a compassionate life spent in some really scary places.

  66. Spent 2 years doing stuff in europe which by written contract I will go straight to jail (No trial) and 4 doing other stuff because of the previous stress I enjoy reading your comments Jim

  67. Good post did my 6 and out 2 doing stuff I by written contract will send me to the brig if i relate 4 in other duties after stress became too much

  68. Very well written. You have said it so well.

  69. As always, Jim, you have captured the thoughts of so many. I despise the Veteran's Day hooplah. The other 364-65 days are just as important.

  70. A good essay for any day. It takes a wise person to love, or even tolerate, their neighbors. War begins locally before it spreads. The hateful people who start wars should read this essay first.

  71. I am a cold war veteran. I didn't serve in combat having spent my four years in Germany and at Fort Knox. I made a lot of people unhappy yesterday on my Facebook timeline by stating that I don't like to be thanked for my service. That, indeed, I, internally, roll my eyes when it comes up.

    I joined for college money. I'm the oldest of six kids of a career enlisted man. One of the few Air Force combat medics that came out of Vietnam. Had I been called to use what I learned, I'd have done it without hesitation because it was a contract I signed. I didn't want to do that and, thankfully, I didn't have to.

    I echo many of the thinks you've written here. The difference here is that the only day I don't mind being thanked is Veteran's Day. It's the other times during the year that bother me. That enshrination of veterans as "superior" bothers me.

  72. I am ambivalent about many of your ideas. Some I agree with, some not so much. One I vehemently disagree with is your contention that all war is immoral. I don't believe that to be the case, and if I did, I would then be morally bound to stop it, or not take part. But some wars are good. One might benefit from a thorough reading of Aquinas on just war before one convicts all war.

    1. I've read Aquinas. What I take from his writing on just war is that undertaking war is just, in the sense of being allowable and even necessary, if those undertaking it have considered all other options and refraining from war would lead to worse evils than undertaking it. War is still immoral, but at times it may be justifiable because it is the lesser evil and undertaking it averts a greater evil.

  73. Excellent essay, Jim!
    Damn. You are so good at this, we may just have to erect a statue of you somewhere. :-)
    And there will be plenty of empty pedestals around when we get rid of these Confederate "hero" ones.

  74. Superb essay. Thanks. Like you, I have always had trouble with naive , or misguided, worship of the military. I spent 22 years in the USAF. Like you, my military career was divided between being enlisted and having a commission. After I retired I got a great job in telecommunications R&D, but it was in Germany. Now, retired from that 2nd career, I find myself still living in Germany (wife, kids, etc.).

    I also respond politely to thanks for my service, but it still seems to get under my skin. Living in Germany, I don't have to confront this very often. Only when I'm home visiting family. What bothers me the most is the level of commercial promotion of the military that we see today. I'm not talking about the small business or restaurant offering a veteran discount. It's more the large scale promotion like that seen in the NFL with entire teams being clothed in camo gear, soldiers all around the field and in the broadcast centers, etc. I know that much of this comes back to paid advertising, but it makes me extremely uncomfortable. This past week (due to Veterans' Day) was the worst. I read your other article about Veterans' Day, and can't agree more with your sentiments.


    We didn't do it to be thanked. Just keep out politicians who want wars for bogus reasons and don't care about us later. Remember us and support us ALL THE TIME, NOT JUST ON VETERANS DAY AND MEMORIAL DAY.

    We have long been fighting for mostly bullshit, accomplishing little except to kill and maim a lot of us and many more brown people, who hate us more and more. Meanwhile, assholes who don't have to fight get richer and richer.

    I know a 100% disabled veteran who must make VA medical appointments weeks or months ahead. Depending on his need, his round trip is 70, 180, or 300 miles. He can't drive himself. Another is happy his trip is "ONLY" 90 miles. From here (metro pop. ~140,000, but no VA hospital), it's 100 miles.

    Meanwhile, REPUBLICANS START WARS, BUT WON'T FUND VET NEEDS, SUCH AS HOSPITALS. They won't pay for us to see civilian docs, get job training, or to care for 45,000 homeless vets, and cut vet food programs. Their owners get rich.

    PROGRESSIVE DEMOCRATS are the ones who help us.




    Republicans are all talk and worse than no action.

  76. Jim, thank-you for writing this...your words express how I have felt for years. As a Vietnam Navy veteran I would rather see action from our government (and all the 'hero' worshipers) to help the Veterans and not just give us lip service.

  77. A recent quote from Arny Steiber. He puts into words my feelings about the military and money and war.

    "My research revealed that the main causes of war are money and markets. There is always plenty of flag-waving and bluster about the “evil ones,” but every war I’ve studied, once you begin peeling back the layers, has money and markets as a common core."

    And from 2102 - ( http://www.peacecouncil.net/pnl/may-2012-pnl-814/memorial-day-2012-a-day-to-ask-why )

    "A day for peace"

    "Armistice Day, 11/11, was originally a day to recognize the ugliness of war and vow never again to have war. Its meaning, like many things in the U.S., has been changed. Now 11/11 is called “Veterans Day,” a day to glorify the “heroes” who have been in the military.

    I’m an Army infantry veteran of the U.S. war against the people of Vietnam. I’m not a “hero,” and I cringe when people say, “Thank you for your service.” Those in the military are used as pawns in the rich man’s game of conquest. We never hear that because those in power need the military to carry out their diabolical plans.

    On 11/11, look up Armistice Day and watch the documentary “Untold History of the United States.” Recognize the day as it was intended. No matter how hard those in power try, war and its aftereffects are ugly, and it robs us of our humanity and resources. For me, 11/11 is, and always will be, Armistice Day." — Arnold Stieber, Chicago

  78. I find your post interesting at best and disturbing at the least. You don't want to be a hero...ok. You're not. You want to deny others that...not your call. We want to salute you, let us. You don't need to accept or acknowledge that...your choice. I don't like war or conflict but I will always respect and revere the men and women who defend our freedoms throughout the centuries.

    1. It is obvious to me that you didn't understand a single word of this essay.

      It's also obvious to me that you've never served a single day in uniform yourself, let alone in war.

  79. Thank you, Jim Wright. I hope your valuable words will reach many. Best wishes to you.


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