COMING HOME from a combat zone is an alienating experience. America's deepening civil-military divide crystallized for me two weeks after I had returned from Iraq, while sitting at a Starbucks in the San Fernando Valley. I looked around the cafe and saw a dozen people ordering coffee, talking, reading and studying, while the baristas were busily serving drinks. All of a sudden, it hit me. Even though we are a nation at war, the war does not really seem to exist here in America.
Frequently over the last two months, my friends have referred to me and other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as "heroes." This has disturbed me a great deal, forming another sort of alienation that is likely to become particularly acute this Veterans Day. American society venerates all soldiers as heroes, yet we in the military reserve that label for those who truly go above and beyond the call of duty. To us, the ordinary soldiers who merely served in harm's way, the label feels like a garish shirt — it neither describes us well nor fits us comfortably.
During peacetime, I remember wondering how I would perform under fire for the first time. I vividly recall my first raid in Iraq, when my team hit its first improvised explosive device, thanking God and my training that I did not wet my pants in fear. We stand in awe of those who, at the moment of truth, can muster the moral and physical courage to stand above the rest by rushing to a wounded comrade or into a hostile building.
Heroic legends, from the stories of Homer to the modern-day medal citations in Iraq, are passed on from sergeants to privates, captains to lieutenants. We mark these men and women with ribbons and medals to reward their heroism, but also to establish these warriors as role models whose example might encourage the rest of us soldiers.
Civilian society venerates its heroes too, often for similar reasons. Who can forget the example of the firefighters and police officers who rushed into the burning World Trade Center on Sept. 11? But in today's society, the mere act of volunteering for military service has somehow mutated into a heroic act.
Less than 1% of our country wears a military uniform; fewer still have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead of being seen as a duty that should be borne by all, military service has been transformed into an elective chosen by the few. Today, with America at war, the burden of service is heavy, but it is not wide. Small military communities such as Oceanside, Calif.; and Clarksville, Tenn., feel the human cost of this war, but they are unusual in America. And so we lavish praise on those who make this decision, regardless of whether their choice is owed to personal patriotism, ambition or a quest for opportunity.
Soldiers and civilians also share a different moral code, something highlighted by those different definitions of heroism. Soldiers exist for their team; they will do anything for love of their brothers and sisters in uniform. Civilians, by contrast, live for themselves. Americans have become the quintessential rational actors of economic lore — pursuing their self-interest above all else, seeking enrichment and gratification.
To be sure, Americans engage in a great deal of altruism, and this is to be praised too. But the sporadic acts of selfless service performed by civilians cannot compare to the life of service chosen by our military personnel.
So when civilians approach us in airports and cafes to thank us for our service, it frequently causes some degree of discomfort and alienation. Although grateful for the warm reception, many of us don't know how to respond. Our service means a great deal to us. We will never forget the sacrifices, hardships or experiences we had in combat, nor will we ever forget those with whom we served. But I have never felt that such service merits praise, and certainly not the label of heroism.
I judge myself by the code of a warrior. That ethos demands selfless service, not aggrandizement. It praises the team, not the individual. And it saves its highest accolades for those who distinguish themselves through extraordinary acts of valor. As veterans, we know the real heroes among us; many of them did not come home. Awarding this distinction to everyone cheapens the accomplishments of those who earned it — and makes the rest of us feel guilty that we have somehow stolen recognition from the worthy.
On this Veterans Day, many Americans will pause for a moment to think of service to the nation and of those who have worn the uniform on their behalf. At a time when such a small fraction of our country serves, it may be just one of two days a year (the other being Memorial Day) when this occurs in any meaningful way. But when you talk to us, or about us, this Veterans Day, please don't call us heroes. Save that label for those warriors who truly deserve it. I was just doing my duty.