We Don’t Have to Die To Be a Hero

I feel dead soldiers are heroes, but not because they’re dead.

Steve Roberts black ink drawing: bring with heart head with four big feathers

Recently I heard where a television opinion show host got into a bit of politically correct hot water for questioning whether those soldiers who died in combat were rightly called heroes.  I don’t really know what a hero is, but if I had to guess I’d say it was someone who risks their own welfare for the good of others.  Most parents start my list.  Those who pay attention to their wedding vows are up there, too.  Soldiers who die in combat are not. 

That may seem blasphemous to some, especially to those who have lost a loved one in this exquisitely painful manner.  I feel dead soldiers are heroes, but not because they’re dead.  It seems the criterion for being a hero ought to be about a lot more than whether you’re alive or not.

I’m a big fan of soldiers.  At the same time, I find war, generally, an expression of immaturity––as in: “The first person to raise his fist is the first person to run out of ideas.”  I have little confidence in the people who make decisions to send their nation to war, and the notion of glory is almost childish to me, as if it takes a special person to help his or her buddy in a moment of crisis.  There is also something about glory that reminds me of athletes who win a game and strut around as if they’ve just changed the order of the planets…and thus, by some strange logic, are superior to other mortals.  (The delusion that we’re superior or inferior to another may be the core reason there’s war in the first place.)  But I have tremendous respect for every person in the military. 

That’s why, to me, there is something heartbreakingly empty about the bumper-sticker “Support Our Troops” when I hear the stories of how challenging it can be for veterans and their families to get the support they need to cope with active duty and heal after it.  As I write this, a headline in the New York Times states "Suicides Are Outpacing Deaths in War for U.S. Troops."   

I don’t think soldiers who die in combat are necessarily making a so-called “supreme sacrifice.”  To me, they already made about as supreme a sacrifice as you can make by putting themselves in a position where their lives might be compromised in grotesque ways often beyond imagination.  That’s heroic, if anything is.  Perhaps some of their actions as soldiers display an additional expression of heroism.  But death in itself is not heroic.  Death in combat is more often than not a matter of unfortunate timing.

Every dead soldier in my book is a hero, but only because they were heroes while they were alive.


  1. Great article Steve, as yours often are.

    I do wish to express my own thoughts on your regular plug for marriage and vows.

    I’d love for you to discuss this, as, perhaps in my own place of unforgiveness for my own choices, it can sound awfully like judgement towards those who depart from their marriage.

    I personally did so under the very great challenge of knowing when to move to a different form of relationship with my once spouse. I suffered greatly at the hands of my own sense of failure, yet chose to move away from a space that seemed to permeate worse energy and failure for myself and my children.

    As I am the person that I am, I feel the potential desperation in my comment, but wanted to share that that little plug you regularly make in your writing is not always written in support of decision/or potentially other ways in which people respect their vows, as in relation to this piece. Perhaps upon my death bed I will truly know if my decisions were heroic or other.

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"I honor that we are killing the earth for the same reason I consider being an alcoholic a privilege: it is a doorway to the profound self-understanding required to make truly healthy choices."

The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth