Why America Honors Her Heroes

We need them and the social solidarity that comes with standing behind them.

A new movie from the Netherlands, The Resistance Banker, now on Netflix, tells the true story of two Dutch bankers—a pair of brothers—who used their financial wiles to help underwrite the resistance to the Nazis in World War II. One of the brothers, Walraven van Hall, was caught, tortured, and executed by the Germans in 1945. After the war, the other brother, Gijsbert van Hall, was elected mayor of Amsterdam and served in that post for more than a decade.

Thus the film is a reminder that the stakes for patriotism can indeed be high. War is hell, of course, but in its hellishness, it’s also a proving ground for future political leadership.

In 1776, Thomas Paine, a patriot in a different struggle, the American Revolution, wrote about the inherent threshing out process of fighting: “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country.” And yet, Paine continued, “He that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

In Holland, a grateful nation’s reward for “Wally” van Hall is indeed glorious. Today, there’s a monument to him across from the Dutch Central Bank, as well as another memorial to him and to others killed by the Nazis at the site of their martyrdom. (In addition, for his work helping Dutch Jews escape the Holocaust, Van Hall is immortalized at Yad Vashem in Israel; he was also awarded posthumously the U.S. Medal of Freedom.)


Every country finds a way to reward its heroes. It’s a matter of solemn obligation, to be sure, and yet over the long run, it’s also a matter of enlightened national self-interest. That is, a nation needs heroes, not just to provide inspiring role models, but for the sake of its very survival. After all, from time to time, every country faces a mortal threat to its existence, and so it must, in order to survive, have a reservoir of citizens who are willing to stand up and fight for it. Otherwise, the nation ends up on the ash heap of history, alongside Gascony, Wallachia, and the Iroquois Confederacy.

Thus the onus is on a country to figure out a way to inculcate patriotic virtue into its population. In 1785, Noah Webster, he of dictionary fame, took up this challenge in a compendium of inspiration, somewhat grandiosely entitled An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking Calculated to Improve the Minds and Refine the Taste of Youth. As Webster wrote in the preface, “In the choice of pieces, I have been attentive to the political interests of America.” In the pages that follow, Webster excerpts patriotic speeches from Cicero to Shakespeare, and yet the emphasis is on Americans, starting with George Washington.

A key theme of Webster’s book is the encouragement of martial valor and a spirit of self-sacrifice. Because what Winston Churchill said is true: without courage, all the other virtues are worthless. So Webster included John Hancock’s thunderous oration of March 5, 1774, on the fourth anniversary of the Boson Massacre. Speaking of those slain patriots, Hancock declared, “Death is the creature of a poltroon’s brains; ’tis immortality to sacrifice ourselves for the salvation of our country.”

So it’s a fitting and proper duty for every generation to find a way to pay tribute to those who served and sacrificed. War literature, especially war movies, might have their guts-and-glory appeal, but the best of them have an appropriate solemnity of purpose. Thus it is, for example, that Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan begins and ends with an elderly veteran visiting the D-Day cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking the Normandy beaches.

Moreover, each new generation can find innovative ways to pay homage. For instance, Peter Jackson’s new documentaryThey Shall Not Grow Old, features colorized and otherwise enhanced video footage from World War I. (The title of the film comes from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem of tributeFor the Fallen.)

Yet patriotic exhortation rings hollow if nations don’t have the moral and fiscal courage to redeem their debt to veterans, as well as to other survivors of war. The words etched on the entrance to the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., come from Abraham Lincoln, and they form a stern injunction: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” In other words, all citizens and taxpayers must be part of the social compact that supports veterans. Admittedly and unfortunately, the Veterans Department is rocked by periodic scandals; nobody ever said good governance is easy.

We can also say that the proper cultivation of good and dutiful citizenship entails a thoroughgoing commitment to the wellbeing of all citizens, in and out of uniform. As this author has noted, 2018 is the centennial of the famous pledge from Prime Minister David Lloyd George, in which he declared that post-Great War Britain would be “a nation fit for heroes.”

Thus the prudential expansion of the welfare state was not only the right thing to do, it was also politically expedient in terms of fending off radicalism. Furthermore, to put the matter in the most militarily reductionist terms, most people won’t fight, or at least won’t fight effectively, for a country they regard as unjust. Indeed, just two decades after the Great War, Britain, as well as America, desperately needed warriors yet again.

If social solidarity is an important goal of statecraft, then it’s vital that everyone offers some sort of participation—and visibly so. Thus it was was notable as well as admirable that all four of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sons served in the armed forces during World War II. And three of them were genuinely in harm’s way for prolonged periods. Indeed, as many have noted with a sigh, the last president to have fought in combat was George H. W. Bush.

Such all-in participation should also include the plutocracy, in the form of the rich actually paying their fair share of taxes. It’s startling as well as demoralizing to realize that, as The New York Times reported in 2015, the effective income tax rate paid by the very rich fell from 27 percent in the 1990s to 17 percent during the Obama years. That’s a cut of 10 percentage points, or, to put it another way, nearly 40 percent. And all this good news for fat cats came at a time when the U.S. was engaged in two wars.

As an aside, one needn’t be a supporter of America’s military misadventures over the last two decades to see the value of demanding full societal participation. Indeed, if everyone, top to bottom, were to feel the pain of wars, a lot more thought would be given to the launching of them.

In the meantime, the public is always ready to reward veterans with the honor of high public office. As The Military Times reported last month, in the 116th Congress convening next month, 95 lawmakers will be veterans, or 18 percent of the total body. That percentage, we might note, is down from nearly 75 percent a half-century ago, when just about every male of a certain age had been in uniform in World War II.

So these days, when military experience is rarer, the war heroes, of both genders, stand out. One thinks of Senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in Iraq, and Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw, who lost an eye in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, another war veteran in Congress, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, seems to embody many of the most important lessons of martial service in her new public career. That is, she is anti-war, but pro-solidarity. In 2016, she rejected the super-interventionist Hillary Clinton, favoring instead Bernie Sanders, an anti-war domestic reconstructionist. Since then, she has continued her anti-intervention efforts; daringly for a Democrat, she has even met with with Donald Trump.

Now reportedly she’s planning to run for president. It’s hard to know what to make of a 37-year-old who is only in her fourth term in the House—there are after all 20 or 30 other Democrats, most better known, also seeking the nomination. But we do know this much: when the stakes were high, Gabbard stepped up and put her life on the line in Iraq.

That sort of courage provides a bolstering foundation for everything else she might do. As Churchill would say, only courage ignites the other virtues.

It’s for their courage that the Dutch still honor the van Hall brothers. And that’s why Americans, too, have a way of exalting our brave heroes, such that other historical figures seem just to fade away.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

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16 Responses to Why America Honors Her Heroes

  1. SteveM says:

    Re: “We need them and the social solidarity that comes with standing behind them.”


    Light ’em all up…

  2. SteveM says:

    I’m also wondering why Russian soldiers defending Syrians from U.S. backed “moderate” jihadist lunatics are considered ruthless animals by the U.S. government and MSM:


    And why the U.S. military supporting the odious Saudis as they pulverize Yemen to smithereens and starve the civilian population are considered “Warrior-Heroes” who are “defending our freedoms”.

    What the hell defines a “brave hero” anyway…?

  3. Wilfred says:

    Yes, a nation needs heroes, if it is to remain a nation.

    But there is a madness afoot now in America, in which demagogues whip up the fervor of crowds, to pull down monuments of anyone from the past who does not measure-up to current political opinion. The mediocrities who do this are trying to show us how virtuous they themselves are, and distract us from their own failings.

    Every time a monument to Columbus, or Washington, or Jefferson, or some Confederate hero is removed, I feel less connected, and less interested in honoring the politically-approved heroes whose monuments remain. If you purge my heroes, maybe I won’t honor yours either.

    Give it time. Eventually, some Dutch SJW will disapprove of something the van Halls did or said, and want to pull down their monument also.

  4. Trump-bolton-pompeo says:

    Most of these sacrificces post WW2 have been made for a war crime. I feel pity. But not much more.

  5. spite says:

    One would think that it is a given, that heroes are by definition always valued by society. The problem here is that different factions are increasingly picking different heroes (that are villains to others) to honor. The plain fact is that there is no one America any more, to not see this is being naive like this article is.

  6. Fred Bowman says:

    While I agree our nation needs heroes and that those who are willing to put themselves in harms way needed to be honored and if in need, be taked care of. Nevertheless, the current “hero worship” especially of those in the military, rings somewhat “hollow”. If one goes on Facebook on a regular bases, one will find pictures of a wounded veteran, and usually one that is an amputee or severely burned, followed by a request to “share” if “you support our military”. But no where do you find anyone questioning the unauthorized wars they have been tasked to fight. Add to that, the many “over the top” patriotic displays one sees at many sporting events, all supposely about “supporting our troops”. But then again, nothing is said about the “wars they have to fight”. To me this is no more than “Sunshine Patriotism” with most of America “washing their hands” of the reality of what military service is all about, especially in a time of unauthorized wars in the Middle East that seem to have no end and who purpose has long ago been forgotten. Is it any wonder that to many who have served that “Thank you for your service” as come to mean “Better you than Me”. Btw I grew up an Army brat, with my father serving in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. And I witness his PTSD moments upon his return from these Wars. I myself was a Navy Corpsman from 74 – 78 and while I never had to serve in Vietnam, I served with many who did. And quite a few had “mixed emotions” about their service. Anyway just my .02 cents.

  7. I’ve posted the thoughts below on other threads here but they are appropriate for this one as well:

    At the outset of the First World War on August 1, 1914 the Kaiser declared war on Russia and, appealing to cheering German crowds, bellowed: “Let your hearts beat for God and your fists on the enemy.” In other words, love God, hate your enemy. Jesus’ response is found in Matthew 5:38-39 and 43-44. Christian soldiers killed in war are victims of a Church that failed to teach them that response and that when God and Country conflict, their duty is to serve God (Acts 5:29).

    Do eulogies for soldiers killed in war ever include Jesus’ admonition: “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword”? Your sword’s place is in its scabbard, not the body of your enemy (nor your friend’s enemy, as in Peter’s case).

    Jesus allowed himself to be killed, and asked forgiveness for his enemies – those who were killing him. When he said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” I don’t think he meant “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man get killed killing his friends’ enemies.” (In the next verse he said, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” When you engage your friends’ enemies, they become your enemies, whom he commanded you to love. Killing them is not among your options. One option consistent with Jesus’ words would be to place your body between your friend and his/her enemy.) Islamic martyrs are killed killing others — Christian martyrs are not.

    Though there is a worldly justification for killing to obtain or maintain freedoms, there is no Christian justification for it. Which suggests that Christians who die while doing it, die in vain. Yet, we venerate those who have “fallen” (killed while killing), protecting our freedoms. We must acknowledge that such thinking reflects the reality that we place a higher value upon our lifestyle than upon our loved ones who are sacrificed to preserve it. Glorifying them may ease our consciences, but it also entices the next generation to volunteer for military service and kill more enemies we don’t want to love.

    When we tell soldiers in uniform, “Thank you for protecting our freedoms,” we’re essentially saying, “Thank you – I’d rather for you to suffer a horrendous death, your mother to lose a son, your wife to lose her husband and your children to lose their father, than for me to lose my pleasant lifestyle. As a matter of fact, there’s no limit to the number of soldiers I would allow to perish protecting my freedoms.”

    The dead cannot see our gratitude. Yet, for as long as we are grateful to them and remember them as heroes, rather than as victims of our lack of trust in God, we will continue to send the living to their deaths to allay our fears. In Isaiah 50, God asks, “Do I lack the strength to rescue you?” In Luke 18, Jesus says, “And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.”

    From a Christian perspective that values the worldwide kingdom of God: As an expression of collective self-worship, patriotism is idolatry.

  8. EliteCommInc. says:

    “Every time a monument to Columbus, or Washington, or Jefferson, or some Confederate hero is removed, I feel less connected, and less interested in honoring the politically-approved heroes whose monuments remain. If you purge my heroes, maybe I won’t honor yours either.”

    I am not a huge fan of the revolutionary war. I get it. We won. And we won because some very brave men did some very brave things that and no shortage of support from the French and even less shortage of good fortune. So I have no issues with honoring those that did the did but the idea suggests some characteristics about who we are that is not quite so elegantly dismissed by history.

    That said, our nation should honor every soldier who fight in her stead. That means in support of the union. The issue of what to do is a bit more complex for some – not so much for me, but I am not going to get in a tuss over the desire by some to honor traitors against the very choice for which the revolution was fought. People want to honor Lee, no issues with me. There’s a lot to choose from in so honoring, traitor that he was.

    But those who serve in the US military including her support services should be appreciated for their service warts and all. And by the way, the warts that exist currently are largely the fault of the civilian leadership and that leadership includes every citizen. We are supposed to keep an eye on our leadership, but we routinely, trust their judgement, and that to our dismay with increasing frequency.

    But the one who for whatever joins the services giving over his will for something larger —

    I salute you. I support the contention that said honor be acknowledged for those who for whatever reason gave even more that benefited the many.

  9. Wilfred says:

    Mr Elite:

    Robert E. Lee was not a traitor, no more than George Washington.

    Both men were loyal sons of Virginia; both defended her with honor.

    Only difference: Washington’s cause succeeded, Lee’s cause failed.

  10. JeffK says:

    We honor our brave soldiers that provide us with their ultimate sacrifice because, in some meaningful way, we have to believe it was worth it. We cannot believe otherwise because it would be too painful to face our complicity in such monstrous agendas and programs.

    As Bruce Springsteen says in ‘One Step Up’:

    “We’ve given each other some hard lessons lately
    But we ain’t learnin'”… and

    “Another battle in our dirty little war
    When I look at myself I don’t see
    The man I wanted to be
    Somewhere along the line I slipped off track
    I’m caught movin’ one step up and two steps back”

    And, most importantly, from ‘Brilliant Disguise’

    “God have mercy on the man
    Who doubts what he’s sure of”


    Americans cannot tolerate doubting what we are sure of. Whether it’s war, politics, or religion. Never back down, never apologize. Show ‘strength’ and just keep doing what we are doing. That’s the American Way.

  11. Fran Macadam says:

    War heroes are the wrong kind of heroes for a country addicted to destructive warmaking all over the globe. But useful as propaganda for enabling the profitable carnage to continue.

    There are soldiers who are heroes – those who have seen it first hand and then rejected it.

  12. Fran Macadam says:

    “And by the way, the warts that exist currently are largely the fault of the civilian leadership and that leadership includes every citizen.”

    What do you mean “we,” paleface?

    I understand that with your thinking you might claim we are all as morally complicit as you are, in your belief that every soldier who fights should be honored, no matter for what reason, simply for following orders to kill others, almost always for the benefit of elites. That means in practice, all soldiers of whatever faction, come to eventually fight on the same side, that of death and destruction.

    Sorry. I’m with Smedley Butler, the decorated General who ended up calling out imperial war for what it is, and himself one of its hitmen: “War is a racket.”

  13. JonF says:

    Er, the Confederates fought against the United States. Whatever their heroics we should no more memorialize them in a public basis than we should memorialize Benedict Arnold.

  14. EliteCommInc. says:

    “Only difference: Washington’s cause succeeded, Lee’s cause failed.”

    Many years ago and I mean many many many years ago, based on what I knew I would have agreed. But in discussing the matter and having to examine the record. I am going to draw a very hard line. Every US citizen who took up arms against the US was a traitor.

    1. The Constitution had to be ratified by members 100% to be binding. It’s the same principle in that bound the colonies around the Declaration.

    2. They had already operated as independent states under the Articles of Confederation in forming a nation, it simply did not work. Each state signed on by choice to form a perfect union. No small part of that

    3. The preamble – which I do not take lightly and further the Supremacy Clause — “supreme law of the land” also not to be taken lightly.

    4. The behavior of the southern states reflected that they understood this entirely. There is not a single reference to a process of withdrawal. No. They intended the matter to be permanent. We know this because their own behavior was one in which they engaged in Constitutional adjudication and they expected all the states to comply. And when they didn’t made no small noise about it —

    5. And for all of the southern talk about honor and values. They are interestingly silent about Pres./Gen. Andrew Jackson, who as president made it quite clear that any action to nullify the union would constitute treason and the consequence of said act — hanging.

    And for the record Pres./Gen. George Washington was a traitor, as was every Englishman and legal immigrant who took up arms against Great Britain — no question, and the founders knew it.

    I am not make any assessments about their personal honor – that is another discussion — but traitors — absolutely.

  15. EliteComminc. says:

    Wow, this is the second one I missed. Excuse the delay it was not intentional — I sincerely just missed it. And I was just here last night.

    “I understand that with your thinking you might claim we are all as morally complicit as you are, in your belief that every soldier who fights should be honored, no matter for what reason, simply for following orders to kill others, almost always for the benefit of elites.”

    I am not sure the reality that elites benefit more denies the reality of the purpose and benefit to the rest of us. I have no issues with holding our elected officials to public service by ending their ability to hold any position, or holdings related to the business community — in my mind that is a conflict of interest. Their service is why they have a salary. And there are valid reasons to challenge whether that salary should be paid by the federal agency. After-all, they represent the interests of their state.

    I am saying there’s a space in which our system commends men to go. And given the structure of that space they go. And they go to our call. And while the leadership may err, we rarely elect a leadership that changes course.

    General Butler’s comment is to the business of war material sales to the government. But his observation is not a edict about why not to fight — Hence General butler.

    The business of war profits has been around since the first sling shot or spear was used to hunt. And in very short order I am very certain that someone was designing a better sling shot, a better spear so as to make hunting more effective and in like turn to the defeat of one’s enemies.

    That is not in any way reflective of whether one need fight a war. The fact that human beings make a living by designing and selling better weapons has little to do with whether any given war effort is warranted. Now if as is contended by many that the current wars are merely the manufactured cause to sell weapons by the defense industry and its many tentacles fine. However, as most soldiers are not in the advisory positions to the MIC, their service demands my support. It is my job as civilian to look out for their welfare as soldiers. And that does indeed make me in some manner complicit, even if that complicity only means, failure to convince as was the case in 2001 and 2002 concerning Iraq and Afghanistan.

    I experience deep regret that I allowed myself to be side tracked by the utter machinations that compromised voice, regardless of how tiny its influence.

    I can say with no small amount of conviction, we need a system in which men go when we say go. And we need more care in the people saying go, not less willing fighters. So I honor every soldier. And I even make room for those who in the insanity of battle exceed the bounds of “acceptable war making.”

    war is a nasty filthy business in every way, that we ask men to be sane in an insane environment is no small task. Amazingly it seems most are able. And when they are not, we place a dim view on the matter — but I am not going to be so arrogant as to not make room for what strains good behavior — and nothing can be more straining than the battle field and war environments.

    I certainly would honor someone who chose not to fight and made their case minus running off to Canada or engaging the out and lies used by the 1960’s – 1970’s protesters — never so backwards a rhetoric.

    I honor every soldier because being a soldier is to the defense. And that defense is not merely fighting because the best defense is the defense that one doesn’t have to engage.


    As for Christianity I simply take note that neither Christ nor a single Apostle ever demanded that men stop being soldiers.

    Christ healed their servants and the Apostles gave them the good news. I find what they did not do – very compelling that service alone is not against the will of Christ. I have no easy answers to “turn the other cheek”. But I take it that every soldier gives up his being for something greater. And it is my stead to add voice that such service is warranted.

  16. EliteCommInc. says:

    “Only difference: Washington’s cause succeeded, Lee’s cause failed.”

    I have responded to this — it doesn’t appear i will do so again.

    I consider both men Gen Lee and Pres./Gen. Washington traitors — absolutely and completely.

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