Have You Seen the World? What Would You Say If I Said That You Could?
Hero of War, originally released in 2008 on the 5th studio album of the alternative/punk rock band Rise Against, was the first release with guitarist Zach Blair, and is also the only acoustic song on the album. Although not an official single off of “Appeal to Reason”, the song continues to draw a lot of attention because of the somewhat controversial nature of the politically-centered lyrics addressing the destruction of morals during wartime. The music video was released on the band’s Myspace page in 2009. It features the lead singer Tim McIlrath sitting in a chair with his acoustic guitar in between clips of a young soldier enlisting in the Army and entering boot camp, and later, footage of that soldier experiencing combat during his tour of duty in Iraq, as well as struggling to cope with the memories of the war after he returns home. The song brings attention to the reality of war and the struggle that veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) face every day while attempting to adapt back to civilian society after their time in uniform ends. Hero of War was written specifically in reference to a soldier enlisting during the United States’ eight year invasion and occupation campaigns in Iraq. The soldier written as the subject of the song experiences the same progression that thousands of other veterans go through: from sitting in a recruiter’s office excited about his new career, to being a part of a brotherhood unlike any other. “He said ‘Son, have you seen the world? /What would you say if I said that you could? /just carry this gun; you’ll even get paid’/I said ‘That sounds pretty good”. He is then deployed to Iraq where he quickly realizes that war is so much more than doing the job you trained for and seeing the world, like his recruiter promised. The song emphasizes the fact that there is no glory in war, and just because other people think of you as a hero, for a soldier, it is more often than not difficult to see yourself the same way because the people back home have no idea about the things you have done during war. The point is, that we do it so others don’t have to. We do it so the people back home never have to know how terrible war really is firsthand. From the outside, that seems like something to be honored and glorified. In the heat of battle, you’re not thinking about being a hero; you’re only thinking about doing everything you need to do to get your men home, finish your job, and if you are lucky, to return home yourself to a country of citizens that cannot begin to imagine the things soldiers do for the price of freedom. “I’ll carry that flag to the grave if I must/because it’s a flag that I love/and a flag that I trust” Being a soldier takes a special breed of person to answer that call to serve your country. When a young kid is sitting in the recruiting office, it is true that they are taking on a heavy and courageous burden for our nation; but in that office, there is no way for him to know the price of freedom and once he does, he will never forget it. Because war is something that never leaves you. Back in 2008 there was a movie called “Gran Torino” where Clint Eastwood’s character, a veteran of the Korean War, is confronted by a priest about coming to peace with the things he did while serving his country during wartime. In response he says “What haunts a man the most is what he isn’t ordered to do”. In the third verse, Hero of War addresses an issue that is very rarely talked about outside of the veteran community, if it is discussed at all. When fighting a war, in terms of moral boundaries, there is a very fine, extremely blurred line between a “hero” and a criminal. For the soldier that those back home call a hero, that soldier may feel differently because for that soldier returning from war, in his mind anyway, that line does not exist anymore. There are rules of war as far as politics is concerned. In combat when there is no war to know what is coming from one minute to the next, nothing matters outside of doing what you need to do to survive in that moment and to make sure your brothers do the same. Unfortunately, you quickly learn that you can’t save everyone. When someone is under the constant pressure of combat, overwhelmed, exhausted and watching your brothers die around you, everything surmounts to an intense anger that is difficult to put into words. At a certain point of pressure, you sometimes look for any seemingly rationalized outlet for the anger and hatred of not only the people that caused the death of your brothers, but the politicians sitting safely at home with their families who sent men they would never meet, to fight a war they will never be able to understand the reality of. It is during these moments that any person can lose those moral boundaries and do things that they are not proud of, like the situation the narrator the song describes involving his unit executing a raid to detain and capture an enemy target. “I kicked in the door/ I yelled my commands/ the children, they cried/ But I got my man…” Although the soldier originally protests when the others cross those boundaries of morality after the prisoner is detained, he eventually gives into a combination of peer pressure and the need for any rational or irrationally rationalized outlet for his pressurized anger. “They took off his clothes/ They pissed in his hands/ I told them to stop/ But then I joined in/ We beat him with guns /And batons not just once/ But again and again” As soldiers, we experience the best and the worst times together, forming a bond that is unlike any other and that anyone who has not experienced it can never understand. We fight for each other and we feel each other’s pain so none of us have to carry that weight alone. What Rise Against did with Hero of War was attempt to give the civilian population a look into the mind of a soldier from the time that he enlists as a young, eager kid, to a well-trained soldier ready to do anything in defense of his country, to a hardened veteran returning from war after losing so many of his brothers and a piece of himself. There will be things that he can never talk about because words are simply not enough. Others will call him a hero, but to himself and so many others like him, he is not a hero of war. He is a man who has seen and done the unthinkable so that others never have to; and he is proud to carry that weight. In the final verse of the song, the soldier recounts his involvement in a firefight when a woman begins to approach him while his unit is under heavy fire. The soldier is concerned that the woman may have an explosive device attached to her, which was a common enemy tactic used during the conflict in Iraq, so he orders the woman to stop. When she refuses and continues to walk toward him, he is forced to make the split-second decision to shoot the woman. After the smoke and the dust clears around him, he is able to see that the woman was carrying a white flag, which is the universal symbol for the willingness to surrender. It is at this point that the soldier’s opinion of his involvement in the war drastically changes. He describes bringing home that white flag home with him when he returns from the war. At this point, when others are calling him a hero for fighting the war in Iraq, the only thing he can have faith in anymore is that white flag because he questions everything about himself and no longer can see the fine line between being a “hero” and a criminal. At this point in his mind, the two are one and the same. “A hero of war/ Is that what they see?/ Just medals and scars/ So damn proud of me/ And I brought home that flag/ Now it gathers dust/ But it's a flag that I love/ It’s only flag I trust” When he finally comes home after witnessing and doing things that are an unfortunate part of war, things he may never be able to talk about, a part of him, like every soldier that returns from war, will always be in that desert. When a soldier returns from war he fights another war within himself, learning how to live his life in the civilian world again while being haunted by the vivid memories of things that he wishes every day that he could forget. When a soldier returns from fighting a war he will never be the same as when he left because he brings the war home with him. He relives more than he ever wants to remember every time he closes his eyes. Along with the memories, the demons, the guilt, and the pain that he carries every day, is a constant internal conflict of being called a hero by people who could never fully understand the weight that word carries for a soldier, who see him as “just medals and scars”. Hero of War was a way to bring that struggle to the attention of the general civilian public. At the very end of the song, the soldier looks back with a kind of symbolic sarcasm at the day he enlisted in the Army. He thinks about how much of an exponential understatement his conversation with the recruiter was when it comes to reality of war. “He said ‘Son, have you seen the world? /what would you say if I said that you could”