This is a picture of soldiers represented in an almost a Homeric vision of bravery — a wounded man being carried to safety as he fires at the enemy. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is an artistic construction made with toys. But it became a very big deal last week when a Facebook user posted it along with the caption, “As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!” Ah yes, the fetishization of the military strikes again.
Let’s start with the fact that this is a totally cliched and limited idea of bravery. I don’t doubt that it takes great bravery to fight in a war. But for the people who fight the war, the alternative is prison and in some cases death. In many ways, standing up against the simple choice of going along and instead resisting a draft is more brave. But forget wars. There are lots of ways to be brave, and they usually involve going against the default behavior. It usually isn’t a question of doing what people will reward you for.
On the issue of Caitlyn Jenner, however, I don’t think we are talking about bravery. She is a public figure who is pimping a reality show. She has all the support that money and fame can buy. What she is doing is good for society and for the transgender community. But brave? I’m not convinced. For non-famous, non-rich people, coming out as transgender is incredibly brave. For Caitlyn Jenner — it’s at best less so.
But okay, people in the military do at times display amazing examples of bravery. But why of all the images that the poster could have picked, did he selected this one? After the post got nearly a million shares, he looked into the source of the photo. He found that it came from the documentary Marwencol. It is about Mark Hogancamp, a cross-dressing man who was beaten outside a bar — almost to death. Afterward, he got into building a model of a Belgian town during World War II. The fact that the poster had picked the work of a member of the transgender community made him rethink the whole thing. Now he thinks it was God working in mysterious ways to teach him about the importance of inclusion and love. Good for him!
But I don’t think that’s why he picked the photo. I think he picked it because it is a highly romanticize image of reality. When people talk about things like heroism, they are dealing with abstractions. What “real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like” is dolls designed by a wounded outcast. In other words, what makes real America “real” is that it isn’t real.
This is something I’ve written about a lot in other contexts. The conservative image of “real America” is a place that never existed. And this, I think, explains why modern American conservatism is so nutty. It presents a false choice. The real choice is always between competing imperfect Americas. But in the conservative mind, it is between these imperfect choices and their idealized, perfect choice. It is no wonder that they are against compromise.
But it fills me with hope that the Facebook poster changed from slighting Jenner and defining “real” American heroism to writing, “Hate helps nothing. Love wounds no one.” It bothers me that all those people who shared the original sentiment will not land where the original poster did. But we take baby steps. And that’s good.