Personal Reflections On National ‘Heroes’

So I was watching the Leaf game this Saturday, and before the game there was a ceremony honouring Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. My first reaction was the ridiculously selfish one that always hits me when someone is honoured before a game. It was the old, “hurry it up so we can watch some hockey already” reaction. In this case, it was quickly followed by a sense of shame for reacting that way. After all, what’s five minutes to recognize the work our troops are doing in Afghanistan compared to the 45 minute epic honouring Steve Yzerman? Surely our proud and noble soldiers deserve some recognition for the way they’re putting their lives on the line to represent us overseas.

Right? Right.

But the five minutes before the game isn’t the heart of the issue here, it’s just a recent symptom. The issue is the glorification of war through the image of the brave and noble soldier risking it all for the well-being of his or her country. Or for freedom. Or for democracy. Or for any number of idealized notions that we never really stop to consider. We preach against war and against going to war for any but the most urgent reasons, yet at the same time we glorify the soldier and the act of being a soldier, emphasizing the nobility and heroism of those men and women. And somehow we never notice that these things are at odds with each other.

I come from Trenton, Ontario, which is home to CFB Trenton, one of the largest air bases in the country. Living in this town means being confronted with the humanity of our soldiers on a daily basis. My experience with Canadian soldiers includes people in uniform standing in line at the grocery store and guys at the pub talking about how they want to go to Afghanistan right now because danger pay is so high. It’s sometimes very hard to reconcile their everyday experiences with the image of the noble, self-sacrificing soldier.

This is where it gets tricky. This is where the temptation lies, for me, to say, “These are just regular people who happened to end up in the military. At least some of them want to go to Afghanistan. And, while we’re on the subject, that mission may or may not actually be doing any good. What’s noble or heroic about any of that?”

But of course that’s every bit as short-sighted as blind acceptance of the noble ideal is. These people really are representing our country overseas, and they really are putting their lives at risk to do so. And that action, in and of itself, is noble.

So what do we think? How do we reconcile the idea of the noble soldier with the images of soldiers in their everyday lives? How do we recognize the sacrifices they make without creating a romanticized ideal? Can we?