Foreword: I hesitate to post these musings in case they are seen as anti-military, but that is not the intention. It's really and only some thoughts about the use of the word, hero.
It has been almost three months since a shooter took the life of Corporal Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa.
For those who don't know the story, here it is in brief. A lone terrorist ambushed the reservist, Cirillo, who was given the honour of standing on guard at the the National War Memorial. The assassin then got back in his car, drove the short distance to the parliament buildings, entered and began to roam the halls looking for more victims before he was shot to death. It was covered on all of the news outlets, and you can read the summary here on Wikipedia.
The soldier, Nathan Cirillo, who was killed, was frequently called a hero in various media accounts, and this led Andrew Dreschel, from Cirillo's home town and a columnist for the local paper, to post his thoughts. He was examining the concept of heroism, and his opinions struck a raw nerve with many. Basically, his point was that heroism is defined as someone showing remarkable courage, so that Cirillo could not be classified as a hero just because he was killed on the job.
If you read the article [sorry, link apparently removed] carefully, I think it is plain to see that he was not downplaying the tragedy at all but was examining the concept of heroism and opining that it did not apply in this case.
I think Dreschel's timing, coming just a week after the event was unfortunate. People were still raw and emotional, and there was much negative online reaction to his piece. One dominant idea that I came across on Facebook was that just being a soldier who would be willing to defend one's country qualifies someone for hero status.
The notion that anyone who enlists to defend her or his country must be a hero by default is a powerful one, but I am not quite on board with it. I have no difficulty in thinking that most people in the armed forces must be brave men or women, and I am thankful that they are willing to do the job. However, I am reluctant to name someone a hero until she or he performs a specific heroic act in the line of duty.
People join the armed forces for a variety of reasons. I once taught several boys who got very involved in army cadets, liked that environment, and went on to enlist in the military. It was a path they got into and, coincidentally, one that provided many opportunities such as free training and education plus early pensions and the opportunity for a second career. These were all very fine young men, but I would hesitate greatly to call them heroes or say that they enlisted for heroic reasons because, really, they just really dug army life and were not exactly into it for the idealistic purpose of defending our democracy. Let's face it, jobs can be hard to come by, and the armed forces do provide a living now and training for later in life, and that's a bigger consideration for many than the noble desire the defend one's country.
The other part of the argument of those who hold that all soldiers are heroes by default is that it takes a hero to be even willing to defend one's country. Once again, this is a powerful point, but then I wonder, from a North American perspective, when our borders were last defended. I cannot come up with much. Soldiers are sometimes sent to foreign realms to engage in some conflict or other, but I am not sure that qualifies as "defending one's country."
I will use the latest Iran conflict as an example of an aggressive war that was waged based on misinformation at best and on greed at worst. What it defended, aside from economic interests, I am not sure. What I am sure of is that many heroic deeds were performed by soldiers sent to that conflict and others, but I can't bring myself to call someone a hero just for being unlucky enough to be sent to such a conflict.
So, as you can see, being a sort of guy who likes words, I don't prefer the all-too-easy application of the word, hero. It's a special word that should be reserved for special people performing special acts above and beyond the call of duty. Perfectly good alternative words are available to talk about the military: brave, courageous and fearless come to mind.
I don't take this stand to demean anyone. The unfortunate Corporal Cirillo may have had the makings of a hero and, likely, would have acted heroically given the opportunity, but I don't see that he was given the chance being ambushed like that.