12/14/2012 03:57 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2013

Heroes With a Million Faces

Last month, I had the honor and privilege of attending the first annual Hero Summit, the live-streamed launch of the Newsweek's Hero Project, which looks to "pay tribute to America's deep tradition of service, investigate the phenomenon of moral and physical courage under fire, and explore the very meaning of heroism." At the U.S. Institute of Peace, I listened to moving stories about what defines courage and evokes our character, usually when least expected, which is why Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown observed that the primary trait of a real hero is modesty and humility. "Heroism, after all," she notes, "is about submerging the ego in the service of the group, and the country." It was a great start to a noble endeavor -- but it was only a start, faced at the onset with two challenges.

For one, mass promotion of heroism can lead to what could be called "unintended consequences." For all its good intentions, even a media-led campaign to encourage serious public discourse on heroism through what Newsweek itself terms "theatrical-journalism" is a promethean task. Calling to popular attention the feats and features of persons who, paradoxically, don't see themselves as heroes risks ruining the authenticity of their heroism in the glitz and glimmer of our effusive celebrity culture -- thus having the opposite effect. It's a thin line to walk, but one worth walking -- if its main result, in the words of one reader, is teaching "the true meaning of the word."

This leads to the much larger challenge, something to which Brown, herself, alludes. "Heroism knows no particular context," she postulates. "Courage can and should be quotidian... Yet the heroism most avidly celebrated is that of the soldier."

Right she is. Herein lies the main problem with the likes of the Hero Project -- the overwhelming focus is on just over one-half of one percent of the population as demonstrative of American heroism. In his Huffington Post interview about his new book, The Generals, Tom Ricks stressed: "We tend to venerate the military these days unthinkingly, and that's not good for the military or the country." The veneration and outright hero-worship of our military, now at a crescendo, is an unhealthy distortion of our time-honored yet taken-for-granted civil-military relationship, for a number of reasons.

Placing the military on so high a pedestal while ignoring or marginalizing the contributions of others who serve and sacrifice for the benefit of community and country goes beyond further encouraging the militarization of our foreign policy and the perpetuation of a national security state -- or making Pentagon spending untouchable while killing foreign assistance as we approach sequestration. It goes beyond reinforcing a limited understanding of peace and security that makes us look for nails to pound because the only tool in our national toolbox we recognize is the hammer -- or to fix problems for which a hammer is the wrong tool. The higher the pedestal you build for these people, the farther they eventually fall.

Ironically, as our attitudes toward the military "normalize" some years or maybe even months after we get the last troops out of Afghanistan, our martial myopia may actually turn out to do more harm than help.

Let's face it: American attention spans are notoriously ephemeral. You can bet that if 70 to 80 percent of the public thought that teachers were our national role models -- Jeep (one of the Hero Project's sponsors) would be running an advertising campaign that jumps on that bandwagon. "Support the troops" has become today's version of kissing babies for politicians, as well as a cheap form of patriotism. And Jeep isn't the only business cashing in on it big time.

If you don't think we'll dump these kids as much as we've embraced them, then why has it been so difficult for the Army in particular to meet its recruiting goals, raising the recruitment age to 42 -- even in the midst of the Great Recession? Why has the unemployment rate for veterans been so much higher than for the rest of us? Or why do we have to launch great private initiatives like the Wounded Warrior Project, not just because "the greatest casualty is being forgotten," but also because our Congress will not adequately resource the Veteran's Administration that should be taking care of them in the first place?

The greatest danger, however, of the outsized adoration of our armed forces is that it is intrinsically undemocratic and elitist -- exclusive, not inclusive. It risks exacerbating the apartheid the military has already been increasingly experiencing since our national decision back in the early 1970s to pay the economic rather than social costs of the historical anomaly of large, standing peacetime army. The military itself has learned to talk less about "citizen-soldiers" and more about "warfighters." Singling out soldiers in the search for something beyond celebrity unwittingly fosters the development of a disconnected warrior class as they continue to professionalize. And the more disconnected they are from us, the greater we -- in the form of our government elites who for the most part have also never served in uniform -- are willing to use them.

This is certainly not the national civil-military culture the framers of the Constitution were thinking of.

The best thing we can do, for their sake as well as ours, is to democratize service and sacrifice and de-militarize heroism, remembering that the moral courage of a Martin Luther King has contributed as much -- if not more -- to our national character as those who have faced the fire. We lose more cops and firefighters in America each year than troops abroad, likewise in the name of public security, or more Peace Corps volunteers proportionally in the line of duty -- where are the stories about them? As one reader of Newsweek's "Heroes Issue" called for, we should look forward to more stories in our media about peacemakers that shape the narrative on who we are.

Our challenges are whole-of-society and global. The national mythology that summons our energies to face them should likewise champion role models from all walks of life and every corner of our country. The heroes we worship, after all, reflect the values that brand us as a people.

Joseph Campbell, in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces noted that what makes a hero lovable is his or her imperfection -- ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It gives all of us hope and a call to action by reminding us that each of us, regardless of birthright and social standing, can follow the hero path. "We have not even to risk the adventure alone," Campbell advised long before globalization entered our vocabulary, "for the heroes of all time have gone before us... And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."

The best way we can, in the long run, support, take care of and honor the troops is to make sure they are among us and not apart from us. Like any true hero, soldiers want to be socialized, not idolized. The Hero Project and other like initiatives have a great opportunity -- and an obligation -- to do this.

Making sure our heroes have a million and not a thousand faces is good for them, for us, and for the country so many of us serve and sacrifice for.