Commentary: The trouble with heroes
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2013 - Allow me to begin with a disclaimer: I am not now — nor have I ever been — a hero. I also do not play one on TV. In fact, heroes scare the hell out of me because they remind me of guys who believe their own BS, which can be a very dangerous delusion.
It’s one thing to portray yourself as a dashing, larger-than-life figure when trying to pick up a chick in a bar. Illusion, after all, is critical to the human mating ritual. Women wear makeup; men inflate their resumes. Wine and candlelight are romantic because the latter’s dim illumination tends to obscure unflattering details, while the former helps to blur critical thought. It’s quite another thing, however, to begin to believe your own line.
As a former cop, I spent a good deal of my adult life trying to put dangerous people behind bars. My motives in such matters were twofold: Effect the arrest without getting shot. I can assure you without qualification that the not-getting-shot part of the equation was always at least as important to me as making the pinch.
Given my mistrust of heroes, I was understandably conflicted by the cover article of the most recent Esquire. Entitled, “The Man Who Shot Osama bin Laden Is Screwed,” it details the hardships that have befallen the triggerman who took out the world’s most wanted fugitive. The lengthy piece makes for a fascinating, but troubling, read.
The author of the article, Phil Bronstein, was interviewed on CNN by Anderson Cooper. He was clearly impressed by his subject and described in great detail the almost superhuman endurance required to complete training to qualify as a Navy SEAL and the hellish missions the man had performed in combat over the last decade. Fair enough. Clearly, this guy had done more than most to defend his country.
But Bronstein never explained, and Cooper never asked about, why he felt his hero had been screwed by the Department of the Navy.
The SEAL in question is identified only as “the Shooter” in Bronstein’s piece. He doesn’t want his true name revealed because he fears retaliation against himself and his family from bin Laden sympathizers. That’s understandable, but an even better way to blend in with the crowd is to avoid nationally syndicated publications that exalt one’s exploits, however anonymously.
The Shooter joined the Navy at age 19 after getting dumped by his teenage sweetheart. Bronstein points out that al-Qaida would ultimately be decapitated because of a broken heart.
As a writer, I understand the appeal of that line but would anyone seriously contend that he was the only person who could do the job? Each man on a special ops team is an interchangeable cog in a machine designed to accomplish the mission. It was essentially the luck of the draw that he wound up killing bin Laden. In his absence, another commando would have done the same thing.
With the fabled raid concluded, the Shooter volunteered for another four-month deployment in Afghanistan after which he resigned. At the time of his separation, he had 16 years in service.
Claims that he was abandoned by an ungrateful nation are mitigated by the fact that GI’s are required to serve 20 years before becoming eligible for a pension. Remember that the Shooter joined the Navy at 19. Had he stayed the full 20, he could have retired with a pension for life at 39 years of age. As life expectancy for a Caucasian American male is now over 78 years, he could have reasonably expected to collect for the next 39 years for his 20 years of service. Certainly not a king’s ransom but still the deal he agreed to when he volunteered for the Navy and then competed vigorously for appointment as a SEAL.
Bronstein details a litany of physical complaints the Shooter sustained as a SEAL. I’d bet heavily they’re all legitimate. Commando raiding is a young man’s game. But the Navy is a big operation. Couldn’t he have applied for a less taxing post to finish out his hitch? Or if truly crippled, wouldn’t he qualify for a service disability pension?
As an ever-shrinking percentage of the general population serves in the military, it becomes increasingly tempting to classify those who do as heroes. People who actually serve realize that characterization is ridiculous.
In one sense, it’s a way to dodge our collective responsibility for what we ask these men to do on our behalf. We train and deploy killers to do our dirty work, then dismiss them as heroes to distance ourselves from their deeds. Those guys are special…
Indeed, the Shooter seems susceptible to this delusion. At one juncture, he describes Seal Team 6 as a “martyrs’ brigade” though thankfully, none of them died on the raid. At another, he boasts, “We’ve gotten so good at war, we didn’t need anything anymore.”
When America had a draft, the kid next door would be conscripted. Later, he’d return home to run the corner filling station. Nobody thought everybody was a hero, but most people respected the civic duty common people performed. That’s why we observe Veterans’ Day.
Today, a professional few are called upon to bear the weight of the many. They’re better trained, better quipped, and more highly motivated than most of their predecessors. But they’re still human. Even the Shooter seemed to acknowledge that fact when he remarked about his fellows, “We go to a lot of funerals.”
M.W. Guzy is a regular contributor to the Beacon.