A person who enlists in the military today (in the United States) does so voluntarily. The act of enlisting is considered to have some positive moral value, but the omission of this act is not (again, in our society today) considered a wrongdoing. Such an act, in philosophical language, is called a "supererogatory" act, and many have equated supererogation with "heroism." However, if I were asked to label all people who enlist in military service ipso facto as "heroes," I cannot help but think that this step is a bit hasty.
The military uses a clear method to identify its heroes: it awards them medals. The following is an exploration into the nuances of this "hero calling." What does the military expect of its heroes? What do people expect of military heroes? What kinds of actions are considered heroic, and why? Can we have heroes that are (merely) following orders? What about those soldiers who never did anything in particular "above and beyond the call of duty," but who stayed committed to serving their country for a long time?
In order to attempt to answer the first question (what does the military expect of its heroes?), I will review the army’s medal citations (as found in AR 600-22-8, and assuming that they are representative of commensurate citations in the other services). Since my audience here (at JSCOPE) is comprised largely of military officers and people who are likely aware of the significance of most medals, I will not be too detailed here. I will, however, need to make a few important distinctions.
The first general term I will use is "award." An award is anything presented to a person for having fulfilled a certain criteria. This includes ribbons, combat patches, airborne wings, certificates of appreciation, etc. By "ribbon," I mean only those awards that military personnel place on their uniforms, over the breast pocket (on either side). The army classifies these ribbons in four categories: service ribbons, service (campaign) medals, Good Conduct Medal, and decorations, and therein lies the first important distinction.
The army awards service ribbons and service medals to soldiers simply for being the victim of some circumstance. The Army Service Ribbon (ASR, the "rainbow" ribbon) is awarded to anybody who completes basic training. Similarly, anybody who is deployed for state active duty while a member of the National Guard receives the "State Active Duty Ribbon." Even the POW Medal is considered a service ribbon (although this one is a DOD award), because anybody who was once captured and held as a POW (no matter how--could have been in a foolish way), would be awarded this ribbon. If "simply" seems out of place, consider for example a graduating class from Basic Training: the top graduate (the uncontested ace of the bunch) and the bottom graduate (the one who barely squeaked by) would both get the ASR. I like to call these ribbons the "fog-the-mirror awards." The bottom line is that these awards are not given to make an example out of somebody's character, nor are they given to highlight a particular action: they are given as the soldier, in the course of his or her career, walks over certain thresholds. The character, quality, and demeanor of the particular soldier receiving the ribbon are entirely irrelevant.
The Good Conduct Medal (GCM) is given to enlisted soldiers after three years of "good service." "Good service," however, in this case really means "not bad service," which in turn means that the soldier receiving this award has not been subject to any adverse action such as an Article 15, a courts-martial, etc. This is very similar to a regular service ribbon, but I like to call it the "fog-the-mirror-without-goofing award."
Finally, we have the decorations. These are divided into three categories: awards for service, achievement, and heroism. What is tricky here is that some awards can be awarded for either of these categories, while some can only be awarded for one. The Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM), for example, can be awarded under any category, while the Silver Star can only be awarded for heroism. If a decoration can be awarded for either category, then an award for heroism would be distinguished by the "V" device, which stands for "valor" and which would be pinned on the ribbon itself.
The recipient of a decoration, however, needs to do a bit more than fog a mirror (he or she has to "fog it well"). Awards for service are given for long service. Awards for achievements are given for specific, noteworthy achievements (a successful and fruitful command tour, for example); the more noteworthy, the higher the award. Finally, awards for heroism are given for specific acts; the more heroic the act, the higher the award. For my purposes here, I would like to focus on the first and the last of these categories. Before I get to that, however, I shall have to say something about the reasons for awarding medals in the first place.
At the outset, I think the military has both internal and external reasons for awarding medals. Internally, the military is looking first to retain quality soldiers by improving their morale (perhaps by instilling what Durkheim called a "shared or collective feeling"), second to show what the military considers exemplary behavior, and third to separate soldiers of the same rank for purposes of selection for promotion or other favorable actions. Externally, the military is attempting to show the rest of society whom it should consider the hero, and perhaps also show what values the military deems important (although this is more difficult to prove since the layperson may not know what the soldier had to do to get "all those medals").
If the external reason is the identification of its heroes to the rest of society (and to show society what values the military considers important), then the matter gets a bit more complicated. The military can suggest whom it considers a hero, but the call ultimately rests on the public. Society has pushed many decorated military officers off the "hero pedestal" because of behaviors that it considers repugnant (GEN Ralston, for example). In a broader sense, and perhaps tied to a general sentiment about what constitutes a just war, society considered World War II veterans more as "heroes" than were Vietnam veterans.
A soldier (who has been in long enough) learns to recognize these medals on the lapels of his or her peers, and learns to recognize what he or she must do to attain such a medal. The whole business of wearing awards is obviously quite ingrained in the military culture; military officers have committed suicide over these issues. However, in this internal system we find an interesting paradox: if a Durkheimian collective feeling is indeed one of the military’s internal goals, then this would only work if the soldiers receiving the medals were not aware (or ignore) the system currently in place to award these medals.
When I was a commander (of an artillery headquarters battery), for example, I was pretty much given a quota for the number of ARCOMs and AAMs I would have to award at the completion of an Annual Training period. Similarly, soldiers who were members of particular units in the Persian Gulf received prestigious awards, like the Silver and Bronze Stars, in a "blanket" fashion, much like service awards are given, for being there, even though, as many veterans of "tougher" wars would argue, their circumstances were not nearly as perilous. Hence, if they knew that their medals were given out in a "blanket" fashion, then the value of the medal would be degraded, and so should the collective feelings in those who earn the awards in question.
I have already made the distinction clear between decorations given for service and those given for heroism. I have also said that when the military gives out awards, one of the reasons (internal and perhaps external) for doing so is the making of an exemplar of sorts. Nevertheless, I must ask, what values is the military trying to promote or exemplify by the use of these decorations?
If we consider the awards for heroism first, let us ask the following question: Are there situations that are heroic, yet are not exemplary? The answer is "yes." Some heroic acts, especially those that are particularly gallant, those that are considered for the Congressional Medal of Honor, are often foolhardy, not exemplary. "Exemplary" implies that we want the rest of our soldiers to emulate this behavior, yet some of these heroic acts are not the kinds of things we want our troops to be doing on a regular basis: they would get killed! Granted that what we want to exemplify is the intent of the act, the selfless nature of it, but separating this from the foolishness of the act itself is sometimes very difficult. I think, therefore, that the military is in a little bit of a bind: we should be able to separate those heroic acts that are foolhardy from those that are genuinely exemplary, but what if this is impossible?
Contrast, then, the awards given for heroism with those given for service. The "hero," given a split second to decide, saves a comrade by risking his own life. The career soldier has had twenty-plus years to deliberate his role in life, understands fully the perilous nature of this career choice and, through intentional deliberation, perhaps pontification, elects to stay in service.
Rather than concentrating on awards that recognize specific actions (or types of actions), I think the military would be better off emphasizing those awards given for service. If the military wants to uphold certain values as important, then one of the values that has lost priority in society is the notion of a long-term commitment to serve our country. Those service members who "stay in" for over twenty years, I think, are the true exemplars. In an important sense, it is heroic for just-recruited soldiers to accept that the day may come when they may be required to lay their lives on the line. However, the real hero, to me, is the person who realizes this and decides to serve the country for "the long haul."
It should be clear by now that a form of Aristotelian virtue ethics is at play here. We want to show the soldier what it means to be a hero, but we cannot point at a particular act. We really want to point at the hero's character. My suggestion is that it is more appropriate (easier, more discernable, more noteworthy, etc.) to point at the character of the career service person, than it is to point at the selfless nature of an act performed by a hero, in a split second, in battle. This is not to say that all career service persons have exemplary character; nor is it my intention to imply that battlefield heroes do not have exemplary character. I am, however, calling for a closer look at the character-end of the spectrum, as opposed to the act-description-end of it.