By Mary Hood
Today’s stereotypical war hero – drawn largely from dramatised media portrayals – looks much like his historical predecessors. While the uniform, kit, and weapon may be different, the generic image of a tall and rugged white man valiantly risking his own safety in some far-off land remains. However, if the US intends to continue in being equipped with the best soldiers to fight on the battlefields of the new century, that approach needs to change.
A 2016 Pew Research Study found that more Americans have ‘a great deal of trust’ in their military than in any other public institution, a finding that parallels previous reports. This trust has remained high since the Second World War, only faltering during the Vietnam War before quickly recovering. Prizing its claim to the oldest surviving Constitution in the world, the United States’ survival relies on positive civil-military relations marked by a successful system of military subordination to civilian control and a distinct absence of the military in domestic law enforcement.
This dynamic, combined with the current cultural-political landscape, results in two outcomes. First, the U.S. military abides by the will of its civilian leadership, and more diffusely, the American public. The Vietnam War demonstrated just how disastrous a military operation can become when public opinion turns against it. Research also shows that public opinion directly influences military spending, sometimes more so even than the actual conflict. Second, limited domestic presence of the military and the absence of existential conflicts since the Second World War have created a military largely aloof from the American public. Fewer and fewer Americans personally know an active duty service member, which experts argue translates to an increased reliance on media sources for an understanding of the military.
Herein lies the problem. According to a recent academic article on media portrayals of the military, ‘research shows that military service members are often framed as stoic, heroic, patriotic, dedicated, hypermasculine, or even superhuman.’ The article goes on to discuss how this perpetuates a “warrior myth,” in which every service member is a combat hero of epic proportions. Perhaps this was truer during the Second World War, when 61.2% of all U.S. military enlisted personnel served in combat roles. Indeed, a website entitled ‘The Art of Manliness’ allows you to compare your physical fitness to that expected of WWII soldiers, thus proving that you are as ‘manly’ and ‘tough’ as your grandfathers before you.
Moreover, ‘The Art of Manliness’ is not alone. It is evident that a historic nostalgia for the time when millions of young men braved the dangers of war with nothing but a rifle and a rucksack combined with the media glorification of combat via content such as ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘American Sniper’ have led to an American public firmly entrenched in their ideas of who and what the United States military should be.
The depth of this problem was painfully illuminated by the debacle that was the proposed Distinguished Warfare Medal in 2013. Days before retirement, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a high-level service medal for those military members demonstrating ‘extraordinary achievement’ not involving acts of valour. The award was designed to acknowledge outstanding achievement by cyber warfare and combat drone operators – individuals often overlooked for recognition due to the distinct lack of risk of bodily harm inherent in their duties.
The American public would have nothing of it. A Fox News article on the subject, harkening yet again to the historically rooted, stereotypical ideal of a soldier, opened with, ‘There was a time in our nation’s military history when a service member actually had to earn their medals.’ Fox News was joined by a cacophony of other voices, who if not upset purely by the medal’s existence, then decried its order of precedence being ahead of some combat awards. A House of Representatives bill banning the medal from being rated equal to or above the Purple Heart rapidly gained 124 cosponsors. Such was the outcry that the medal was deemed ‘unnecessary’ by new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and subsequently cancelled in its entirety less than two months after it was first introduced.
The public’s stubborn determination to cling to outdated ideals of what it means to be a war hero limits the military’s ability to modernise and inherently weakens American security in the face of 21st century threats. Today, less than thirteen per cent of servicemembers are assigned combat rated positions. This is reflective of a broader shift in the nature of warfare, where many ‘battles’ are now fought in the space and cyberspace domains. December 2020 marked the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Space Force. Revolutionary in that it will likely never send a single troop into combat, its creation serves as a stark reminder that wars are no longer won or lost by 18-year-olds with rifles.
Yet a public still mired in this perception shackles these efforts at modernising the military. While the creation of the Space Force marks a step forward, an inability to fill its ranks with competent and motivated individuals is likely to be an issue, as it has already proven to be with regards to the recruitment and retainment of cyberspace operators. 71% of young Americans do not qualify for military service today, typically due to recreational drug use, obesity, or medical issues as minor as eczema. Today’s cyber and space experts reside in this broader cross-section of society, and until the military can loosen restrictions on physical fitness, appearance, and medical standards – relics of a historic past continually revived by the media – they remain out of reach as contributors to the safety and security of America.
So, what can be done? The military and the media need to work in concert to move away from the classic embodiment of the American war hero. The Space Force is the perfect opportunity to begin opening doors to military service for a broader sect of the American public, and this needs to be both advertised and praised. While many cyber and space capabilities are classified, increased education and awareness of American strength in these areas can help shape public opinion. Finally, bring back the Distinguished Warfare Medal, or some form of it. Demonstrating that both the military and the public support these new war heroes will be critical if America hopes to field a competent, skilled, and battle-ready force for the 21st century.
[Disclaimer: The opinions and assertions contained herein are the private opinions of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the United States Department of Defense or the United States Air Force.]
Mary Hood is a graduate student at King’s College London as well as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. Her interests include women and mental health in the military, lethal autonomous weapons, and artificial intelligence.