Whose Deaths Deserve to be Honored?

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The confluence this year of Memorial Day and commemorations of the 100,000 Americans who had died from COVID-19 should naturally have sparked a conversation about whose sacrifices should be honored by the nation. Since it did not, let’s start it here.

At first blush, the two issues could not be more different. Soldiers who die serving their country in war are heroes to be lionized. Those who die from disease are victims to be mourned. But a closer examination shows that it’s not that simple. There are many ways to serve the community and varying levels of risk entailed. Ranking them is no easy task.

The line between “hero” and “victim” is blurry and rendered meaningless when the former is over-used. While many display courage when called upon to do so, few are truly heroic. That’s true of those who serve in uniform and those who perform essential but less-heralded jobs that benefit society.



Under pressure from Democratic congressional leaders, President Donald Trump ordered flags on all federal buildings and installations flown at half-staff the Friday through Sunday of Memorial Day weekend to honor those Americans who have died from the novel coronavirus. At the time, the toll was fast approaching 100,000 cases, a threshold America reached that week, at the latest (but likely considerably earlier given the expert consensus that deaths are undercounted). In the two weeks since, the toll has passed 115,000 — a staggering thousand a day — and yet most states are reopening for business.

Memorializing those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in battle seems natural. Virtually every society does so. But for most of American history, infectious disease, not wounds inflicted by the enemy, was the primary cause of death in war. Yet, most instinctively view a soldier dying from malaria contracted in a foreign jungle differently than a bus driver who dies from COVID-19 at home.

Presumably part of this is honoring the giving of life in defense of the community, but it is also generally a recognition of the virtues, including courage, that those sacrificing their lives display. Those honored faced death, acted selflessly, and placed others (including the nation) above their own preferences and interests. These are the ideal virtues of the citizen; therefore, we valorize them.

American society also honors, on Veterans’ Day and Armed Forces Day, those who serve in the military without giving their lives. Their families are also seen as serving, albeit in a different vein. “All who serve are heroes” is a sentiment many endorse according to public opinion polls. Presumably, this is a function of the risks they took and sacrifices they have made.

Yet military personnel aren’t the only ones who risk their lives in the service of the community. The 9/11 attacks highlighted, at a national level, the heroism of the police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians who rushed into the Twin Towers to save others, at the cost of 412 dead from their ranks.

While the contribution doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals make to society has long been appreciated, COVID-19 serves as a reminder that they, too, often risk their lives to keep others safe. Reliable data on how many of them have died from the disease is not yet available it’s considerable. “Thousands” had become infected and 27 confirmed dead in a small sample of the overall cases studied by the Center for Disease Control by late April, when the overall toll was much lower. A study conducted in June puts the toll at 586 and notes that, in some states, some twenty percent of infections were suffered by healthcare workers.

The pandemic has also awakened the world to the risks taken by ordinary citizens, including those who previously seemed invisible and who barely earn enough to make ends meet. While many people with jobs they thought were important were drawing their paychecks working safely from home over Zoom, hundreds of thousands of grocery store stockers, meat packers, childcare providers, delivery drivers, and the like have been declared “essential” and ordered to risk infection so that others can continue to eat and live some semblance of a normal life. Again, reliable estimates are unavailable but the toll has doubtless been high. The anecdotal evidence in New York City alone is shocking.

While Americans rightly shifted from demonizing those who fight in their wars at the tail end of the Vietnam War to lauding them by the 1980s, the pendulum has swung too far, privileging military service above all others. As one of us noted almost a decade ago, “That most people don’t share in the sacrifice of war is no different from the fact that most of us don’t share in the sacrifice of fighting fires, rounding up criminals, slaughtering and processing meat, mining coal, or any number of other dirty, dangerous jobs that need doing.” Indeed, even in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the proportion of work-related fatal injuries was actually higher among fishermen than military personnel, and loggers and timber workers had comparable rates.

The 115,000-plus dead Americans from COVID-19 is far higher than the death toll of all of the United States’ postwar conflicts combined. The Korean War cost the lives of 36,516 Americans and Vietnam another 58,209. Afghanistan 2,353 cost American lives and Iraq another 4,431. For further perspective, there have been multiple days that more Americans were lost to this disease than in the entirety of the nearly two decades of fighting in Afghanistan.

But society doesn’t think of these losses in the same way. Humans naturally place a hierarchy on heroism and virtue. There is a “politics of courage” in which a community, not just individuals, makes judgments about which kinds of courage or other virtues it honors.

A soldier or marine who dies jumping on a hand grenade to save his comrades is likely to receive the Medal of Honor and be lauded as a hero. An airman killed in a missile attack in the rear area will receive a Purple Heart and be buried with full military honors but nonetheless be viewed differently within military circles. But they’re both counted among the war dead honored on Memorial Day. Similarly, the first responders who died in the Twin Towers are honored as heroes while the office workers who perished inside are mourned as victims.

Doctors and nurses who treat infected patients, often without adequate personal protective equipment, are being honored globally for their sacrifice. The meatpackers, Amazon delivery drivers, and those who stock the shelves and man the registers at our big box stores, are getting more recognition than in the past but are still mostly viewed as collateral damage, as victims rather than the strong archetype of the hero.

One possible explanation for this is that first responders and military personnel intentionally choose to risk their lives for others, whereas the doctors, nurses and meat packers had the risk thrust upon them. It makes sense to honor deliberate choices more highly. Yet, in the wars where Americans have lost the most troops, large swaths of those who served on the front lines were conscripts, not volunteers. Indeed, this was well understood at the time; it is only decades later that Greatest Generation hagiography has made all who served “heroes.”

The physical courage of the soldier charging the machine gun nest is perhaps more obvious than the courage of endurance shown by nurses and store clerks who take smaller risks continuously. Yet most of those who serve in the military, even in wartime, don’t engage in hand-to-hand combat.

Beyond that, neither the risk taken in the service of the nation nor the kind of courage displayed explains why soldiers are held in higher esteem than civilian volunteers, such as those in the Human Terrain System, who take similar risks in combat zones, often right by their side. Or why those who volunteer for military service are lauded while those who volunteer for often hazardous duty in the Peace Corps are not.

This hierarchy is not just American. During the Blitz in London, ordinary citizens displayed extraordinary courage and even good cheer in the face of horrendous devastation. Yet the members of the military who went off to fight the Nazis were hailed as heroes, while the members of the fire brigades, medical workers, those who evacuated and sheltered children, and other civilians who carried out important tasks which contributed to the war effort were seen as just doing their duty as citizens. Like our healthcare workers and meatpackers, they stepped up in extraordinary circumstances.

We should draw a lesson from that. Those who continue doing hard and necessary jobs during perilous times deserve our respect. While they were just doing their jobs as they always have, they were thrust into taking risks that the rest of us could avoid. But most of them aren’t heroes; they’re just ordinary citizens carrying on with their roles in the community. Similarly, most who serve in the armed forces, even during wartime, do so honorably and deserve the thanks of a grateful nation. But few are heroes; most never have the opportunity to be.

At the same time, if ordinary citizens have an obligation to carry on their work for the good of the community, society owes them as well. In the case of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, we owe those who die in our service to take care of their families; and to those wounded, whether physically or psychologically, to take care of their medical needs. Abraham Lincoln’s charge, adopted by the Veterans Administration as its motto, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan” needs updating to reflect the service of women. But we should honor the sentiment better than we do. Moreover, Americans should demand their leaders be more cautious in sending them off to die in wars they can’t win and where the safety of the nation is not at stake.

For those in other occupations, while thanking them for their service beats ignoring their sacrifices altogether, perhaps the best way we can honor them is to mitigate their risk. Society can ensure nurses and doctors have the proper protective equipment and a well-funded national pandemic response system in place ahead of the crisis rather than forcing them to risk their lives because they didn’t. And society should require businesses to implement procedures to make it less likely that those who stock our shelves and pack our meat catch preventable diseases because their bosses cared too little about their safety.



James Joyner is a professor of Security Studies and the Security Studies department head at Marine Corps University’s Command and Staff College. He’s a former Army field artillery officer and Desert Storm veteran. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Pauline Shanks Kaurin is a professor in the College of Leadership and Ethics and the Admiral James B. Stockdale Chair in Professional Military Ethics at the Naval War College. She is the author of On Obedience (USNI Press, 2020) Follow her on Twitter @KaurinShanks.

The views expressed here are their own and are not intended to represent the official positions of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or their colleges.

Image: U.S. Army (Photos by Patrick Albright)