Heroes, Villains, and Victims

Three myths about the military.

Americans don't know much about the military.

That's not surprising. In the era of the all-volunteer military, those who serve in the armed forces make up only a tiny fraction of the overall population (roughly one-half of one percent). There are far more veterans than active duty servicemembers, but veterans still make up only about 13 percent of the total population, and their numbers are shrinking as those who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam grow older. The majority of living veterans served in wars that most Americans now consider part of our history, not part of our present: While Americans over 60 account for less than 20 percent of the general population, roughly half the U.S. veteran population is over 60.

Little wonder, then, that the average American knows little about the military and even less about those who serve.

This doesn't stop most of us from forming strong opinions, of course. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of any concrete knowledge, many Americans -- and certainly many in the media -- fall back on comfortable but dangerously distorted myths about those who serve. Lacking examples of human complexity, we turn servicemembers into stock characters in well-worn narratives: the Hero, the Villain, the Victim.

Each stereotype draws on kernels of truth, but each is far more distorting than illuminating. Together, they make it remarkably difficult to have a nuanced or clear-headed national conversation about our military and its role in society.


The Hero

You know this one: It's a favorite trope of the political center and right, and since 9/11 it's become part of our official national narrative. Those who serve are "brave warriors who are risking their lives on behalf of the American people." A "grateful nation" is "inspired by [their] sacrifice." Those killed in America's wars are "heroes, each and every one," says President Obama.

The key terms in this narrative are "courage," "sacrifice," "selflessness," and "heroism" -- the characteristics said to inhere in every member of the armed forces -- along with "gratitude," the emotion the rest of us are officially dedicated to feeling. These terms are reshuffled endlessly in speech after speech, each apparently compiled by functionaries issued with the same short thesaurus. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reminds us that "the peace and the liberty we enjoy each and every day were made possible by the devotion and sacrifice of a long line of brave men and women in uniform." Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explains, "Our brave men and women in uniform continue to protect the freedoms declared by our founding fathers more than two centuries ago."

These have long been staple sentiments of Memorial Day and Veterans Day speeches, but since 9/11 they've also become standard rhetorical fare in virtually every corner of mainstream American culture. The American Red Cross urges Americans to send "holiday mail for heroes." Veterans' groups urge employers to participate in "hire a hero" job fairs, and injured servicemembers are referred to as "wounded warriors," regardless of whether their MOS involved combat operations or service in a marching band.

Meanwhile, enthusiastic displays of public gratitude have become de rigeur, from saccharine renditions of "thank you for your service" to the peculiar insistence of major airlines that "uniformed military personnel" must be permitted to board planes first, before the elderly, the disabled, and parents with infants and young children. (It's a practice that embarrasses many in the military, and enrages those who find it the apotheosis of mindless veneration of the military above all else. "Once upon a time, the strong and fit were supposed to defer to the weak," a retired civilian diplomat raged to me recently. "Remember ‘women and children first'? I'm surprised the airlines haven't asked those traveling with small children to carry the uniformed military personnel onto the plane." My diplomat friend wondered bitterly why airlines don't invite State Department officials to board early. But in a world in which every member of the military is, by definition, a self-sacrificing hero, other forms of service pale in comparison.)

The Villain

On the political left, there's far more skepticism about the "every man and woman in uniform is a hero" narrative. Many on the left fall back on an opposing stereotype: the soldier as villain. (In popular mythology, everyone in the military is a grunt; airmen and sailors are too complicated to fit into the picture.) In this narrative, those in the military aren't heroes at all -- instead, they're enthusiastic purveyors of brutality on behalf of a hegemonic hyper-power. They join the military not out of duty or selfless patriotism, but for the sheer sadistic fun of it: the desire to dominate "ragheads," urinate on the Quran, and engage in socially sanctioned acts of brutality. "Nobody has yet proven that abusive men ... seek out the military -- attracted by its violent culture -- but several scholars suspect that this is so," Columbia journalism professor Helen Benedict suggests darkly.

Like the "soldier as hero" stereotype, the stereotype of the soldier as brutal killer has a long pedigree. In the United States, it reached its apotheosis during the Vietnam War, a conflict that came to be typified, in the popular imagination, by images of napalm and My Lai. It's gone underground to some extent -- displaced by the post-9/11 lionization of the military -- but it remains persistent in certain quarters on the left, fed by the intermittent scandals and crimes that have accompanied America's long war on terror.

Abu Ghraib reinvigorated this stereotype with images of naked Iraqis shivering with cold and fear before sneering young American soldiers. More recently, it's been fed by the murderous rampage of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who killed 16 Afghan villagers, and the 2010 revelations that some members of the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade killed Afghan civilians "for sport."

Even the recent military sexual abuse scandal has fed into this stereotype about military personnel. Amu Baghwati, executive director of the Servicewoman's Action Center, describes the military as "a culture rife with sexism, rape jokes, pornography." Another critic links "the rise of a culture of extreme sexual abuse in the military" to the "brainwashing of American soldiers to become brutal killers." In this vision of the American military, there's nothing resembling heroism or sacrifice; instead, there's endless suspicion and boundless brutality.


The Victim

Others reject both the "soldier as hero" narrative and the "soldier as villain" narrative, preferring what may look like a tempting middle ground. In this final stereotype, individual servicemembers are viewed as ignorant pawns, duped into military service to their own eternal detriment.

This narrative also has deep roots. It's the narrative of the conscript army, in which recruits are hapless cannon fodder, killing and dying for someone else's greed. And as with the "soldier as hero" and "soldier as villain" myths, proponents of this narrative can find some evidence on which to draw. In the Vietnam era, the sons of the poor and the working class found themselves in humid, lethal jungles, drafted, while their middle- and upper-class peers received college deferments. Today, there's no longer a draft, but scholars still warn of an ongoing "poverty draft," and many Americans continue to believe that the military is made up disproportionately of the poor and uneducated (despite evidence to the contrary).

In this version of the story, military personnel may oppress others, but they do so because they've been involuntarily brutalized, tricked, or brainwashed themselves. War "dehumanizes soldiers," writes Henry Giroux in the Monthly Review. "It is this brutalizing psychology of desensitization, emotional hardness, and the freezing of moral responsibility that is particularly crucial to understand." Once "desensitized," soldiers may engage in "mind-numbing violence, war crimes, and indiscriminate military attacks on civilians," but "collateral damage has also come home with a vengeance as soldiers returning from combat are killing themselves at record rates and committing mayhem -- particularly sexual violence and spousal and child abuse."

It's a grim portrait of victimization and dysfunction. In this narrative, the young, the poor, and the ignorant join the military because they have no other options; after a brutalizing training period, they're shipped off to serve as unwitting agents of oppression. Then, conscience-stricken and tormented, they develop post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse comrades and families, become suicide-prone, and end up vulnerable to substance abuse, homelessness, and unemployment.


The Elusive Truth

Military personnel aren't all heroes: The military contains many men and women who demonstrate extraordinary courage and selflessness, but like any organization made up of human beings, it also contains its fair share of bureaucrats, jerks, slackers, and criminals. Military personnel aren't all villains, either: Some members of the military have committed terrible crimes, and some of these crimes have been enabled by those high up the chain of command, but most military personnel conduct themselves with decency and common sense, and many in the military have spoken out against brutality and corruption -- some risking their lives and careers to protect Iraqi and Afghan civilians or speak out against other forms of internal corruption and abuse. Finally, members of the military aren't all victims: While some join the military out of economic desperation or end up struggling with PTSD and substance abuse, the military is a far more diverse cross-section of the general population than most Americans assume, and on the whole, post-9/11veterans report extremely positive military experiences.

In the coming weeks, I'll highlight some of the extraordinary diversity and complexity of today's military population -- and discuss some concrete ways in which misleading stereotypes about those who serve distort public debates about the military and its role.

U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Stephanie Carroll/DVIDS

National Security

The Case for American Propaganda

Complain all you want. But Uncle Sam produces better journalism than most of you yahoos.

My fellow Americans, you're a pretty weird bunch of people.

I say this with love. But really, what's up with your attitude toward government?

On both the left and the right, Americans oscillate between a peculiar, irrational deference toward the government and an equally peculiar, irrational suspicion of it. On the left, a touching faith in the federal government's ability to solve domestic social problems (poverty, ill health, etc.) by spending money is generally coupled with an absolute conviction that when it comes to foreign policy and national security, everything emanating from the federal government is a tissue of lies, probably for the purpose of covering up a sinister imperialist conspiracy and/or destroying domestic civil liberties. Meanwhile, on the right, a touching faith in the absolute rightness and virtue of the military and the absolute need to pour additional tax dollars into national security is usually coupled with an equally deep conviction that when it comes to federal spending on domestic programs, the government is a) lying, b) incompetent, and c) determined to subvert our freedoms.

Of course, right and left occasionally find common ground in their shared conviction that the federal government is trying to control and brainwash us all.

Trust me, it's not. It's just not organized enough. And it's just not interested enough. It's got other things to do.

Nevertheless, this week saw yet another manifestation of our national paranoia about The Government. Late in 2012, Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, and in January 2013, President Obama signed it into law. The act repealed a Cold War-era prohibition on disseminating government information produced for foreign audiences inside the United States. As of July 1, when the repeal took effect, radio and TV programs designed for non-U.S. audiences, such as those produced by Voice of America, can now be re-broadcast in the United States.

The sky is falling! Left and right are temporarily united over the horror of "government propaganda" hitting the U.S. airwaves.

"Obama Launches Massive Domestic Propaganda Push With Government-Run News," shrills Conservative News Central. "Coming soon to your living room: Government made propaganda," laments a post on the Lonely Conservative blog. (Interestingly, both left- and right-wing blogs and "news" outlets seized on a short July 15 piece right here in Foreign Policy by John Hudson, with selective quoting on all sides and sometimes no attribution whatsoever. Hot Air and Free Republic contented themselves with reprinting Hudson's article in full, though it takes some effort to figure out the source.)

Meanwhile, a blog post on Antiwar.com snickers, "Now Legalized, US Propaganda Swears It's ‘Fair and Accurate.'" Over at Firedog Lake, a post asserts that with the "propaganda ban repealed, government-made news floods the United States, " while on the progressive website Common Dreams, a post sneers, "Because the government doesn't already wield enough power over what we see and hear," the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act will now allow government-produced information programs to "lie about how well our wars are going."

On the ideologically uncategorizable wacky conspiracy front, Alex Jones's InfoWars warns that "the CIA will now propagandize Americans" and quotes the late Michael Hastings decrying the "evaporation of Smith-Mundt and other provisions to safeguard U.S. citizens against government propaganda campaigns." (InfoWars also appears to believe that Hastings, best known for the Rolling Stone article that brought down General Stanley McChrystal, was assassinated -- by, uh, the military? The CIA? President Obama? Well, someone.)

Okay, I guess I get it. With so much idiotic privately produced propaganda already widely available here in the U.S. of A., who needs government propaganda? Our private sector already does a fine job of disseminating inflammatory misinformation, thank you very much. I mean: We already have Fox News, Matt Drudge, and TruthOut. We can already find plenty of media outlets that purvey shamelessly one-sided, irresponsible garbage. Why muddy the waters by adding government-funded news?

It reminds me of our collective outrage over NSA data collection: We're fine with having unaccountable for-profit corporate entities collect all our data, but God forbid that our democratically elected government should collect the same data we offer Facebook with reckless abandon!

The irony, of course, is that, just as the government is likely to use our Internet data more responsibly than the private sector, the "government propaganda" that will supposedly flood the country as a result of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is produced to a markedly higher journalistic standard than most of what passes for news here in the United States.

Let's dispel some myths about the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.

First, it has zero effect on the CIA or on the Pentagon; Smith-Mundt only covers information programs produced by the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The CIA and the Pentagon remain subject to entirely different laws and restrictions on certain kinds of domestic activities. If the CIA starts propagandizing you, it won't be because of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act. If DOD funds something dumb, it won't be because of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act. (And, contrary to popular belief on the left and in the State Department, DOD information operations are not generally as dumb as they're often claimed to be. But that's another story).

Second, the ban on domestic dissemination of BBG TV and radio shows was simply unworkable in the age of the Internet. The Internet is global. There is literally no way to prevent a show produced for foreign audiences from being accessed by Americans. In this sense, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act just acknowledges reality: Anyone, anywhere in the world, can access BBG programs. The only thing that's really changed as a result of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is that Americans no longer have to work harder than foreigners to access the U.S.-funded radio and TV programs readily available overseas.

Third, the TV and radio programs produced by the BBG (a descendent of the old U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which closed shop in 1999) are actually pretty good -- and they're editorially independent of State Department control. The BBG is an independent federal agency with a bipartisan board. Its mandate is to produce programming that is "reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective, and comprehensive," as well as "consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States." And when they say "broad," they mean broad, to include "a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions" and "responsible discussion and opinion" on U.S. policy.

In fact, BBG programming sometimes annoys those in other parts of the federal government because it doesn't toe the line or simply parrot administration talking points: In 2001, for instance, Voice of America broadcast parts of an interview with the Taliban's Mullah Omar, leading to intense criticism from others in the State Department. For its willingness to present a wide range of views, VOA won the University of Oregon's Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.

BBG programs have won many journalistic awards, including recognition from the Association for International Broadcasting for coverage of events in Egypt, reports on violence against women in Kyrgyzstan, and a series on the lives of slaves in modern Asia. Most recently, a Voice of America program satirizing Iranian politics won a CINE Golden Eagle award. The BBG produces serious, thought-provoking news and commentary programs in dozens of languages, covering current affairs in dozens of countries. In an era in which U.S. media outlets have radically cut back on overseas bureaus and foreign coverage, do we really need to "protect" American audiences from these shows?

And why would we want to? Prior to the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act, Somalis in Somalia could watch and listen to BBG-produced shows critically discussing Somalia's Al Shabab terrorist group, but when Somali-American radio stations wanted permission to re-broadcast the same shows in Minneapolis, the official answer had to be: "Sorry, no, you can't do that. If you want to access this programming, you need to submit a Freedom of Information Act request, or get a Somali friend to record it for you -- but you still can't rebroadcast it." In other words, Somali-Americans could access al Qaeda's Inspire magazine with ease (or, as John Hudson's piece notes, Al Shabab news or Russia Today), but they had to jump through multiple hoops to listen to Voice of America.


Here's the thing. The U.S. government isn't perfect -- far from it. It's big. It's clumsy. The left hand sometimes doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Sometimes, the government screws up. Sometimes, it even hires or contracts with people who turn out to be idiots or crooks. But it's not a vast, sinister conspiracy. It's just not.

On the whole, it's full of decent people, both civilian and military, trying hard to serve the country, abide by the law, and exercise responsible stewardship over the taxpayer funds entrusted to the government.

The BBG is very much in that tradition. By and large, the BBG produces serious, responsible journalism, and if a little more of that journalism makes it into the United States, we'll all get a little smarter.

Here are some recent examples of BBG programming:

  • An expose on police corruption in Azerbaijan.
  • Coverage of the assassination of an environmental activist in Cambodia.
  • A series on human rights defenders in Belarus.
  • Coverage of the "Pussy Riot" trial in Russia.
  • Reporting on Chinese government restrictions against Muslim worship in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
  • Programs on the impact of the Syrian civil war on women and refugees.
  • Coverage of displaced people in Darfur and refugees in Chad.
  • A show called Street Pulse, covering Egyptian social and cultural issues.
  • A show that lets Pakistani viewers pose questions directly to U.S. experts and policymakers -- and get on-air responses.

If that's propaganda, I'll take it.

And hey, if you don't like the BBG? You can always go back to your little corner of cable news or the Internet -- whether it's on the far right or the far left -- and cuddle up with your like-minded friends.

I promise, the truth will never, ever find you there.

Alex Wong/Getty Images