Are All Dead Soldiers Heroes? (Probably Not, But Apparently You Can’t Even Say That on MSNBC)

May 30, 2012 | Posted by Enrique

This week I was planning on writing about next week’s Wisconsin recall election and what it means for America (possibly nothing at all). But then a minor controversy seems to have ensued over an MSNBC host named Chris Hayes who said he was uncomfortable using the word “heroes” to describe fallen soldiers. Well, that’s much more interesting than this silly Wisconsin recall business, wouldn’t you say?

For our story this week, let’s celebrate Memorial Day by examining the practice of labeling all/most deceased servicemen as “heroes,” which is apparently such a controversial topic that even MSNBC hosts feel compelled to apologize for expressing their conflicted feelings about it.

The story so far…

A hero we can all agree on

Since he’s a host on MSNBC, it’s safe to say no one has heard of Chris Hayes. After exhaustive research, I’ve been able to determine that his program “Up w/Chris Hayes” appears on the network Saturdays and Sundays from 8:00am-10:00am Eastern. He’s been a fill-in for Rachel Maddow, and he’s also Editor at Large at The Nation (“Ideas to Power the 99%”). So despite not having heard of him until Monday, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s a lefty. That’s some shrewd analysis, no?

As you may be aware, there’s a stereotype about lefties that they’re not overwhelming supporters of the U.S. military. That’s not really fair – the anti-war demonstrations of the Bush era are a distant memory, which might be interpreted as tacit approval of illegal wars and extrajudicial assassinations as long as a Democrat is in charge. But still, conventional wisdom is that lefties don’t love the troops and might not be the most patriotic among us.

With that in mind, Hayes expressed the following sentiment on his show Sunday.

Thinking today and observing Memorial Day, that’ll be happening tomorrow. Just talked with Lt. Col. Steve Beck, who was a casualty officer with the Marines and had to tell people…I think it’s interesting because I think it is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the words “heroes.” Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word “hero”? I feel uncomfortable about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. And I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism: hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers and things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

As far as expressions of questionable patriotic content, you’ve got to admit that’s pretty tame. If you watch the video, his tone is fairly reserved. He even ends by saying he could be wrong.

But this wouldn’t be 2012 American Political Discourse if there weren’t a few characters out there ready to muster some outrage over Hayes’ polite misgivings:

Newsbuster’s Mark Finkelstein wrote that Hayes was “the human embodiment” of the word “effete.” Breitbart’s Kurt Schlichter characterized Hayes’s views as an “object lesson in what our progressive elites really think about our military. And it’s not much.”

High-profile, far-right commentators also voiced their opinions, including Ann Coulter, who mockingly tweeted, “Chris Hayes ‘Uncomfortable’ Calling Fallen Military ‘Heroes’ – Marines respond by protecting his right to menstruate.”

Veterans of Foreign Wars also made headlines when it released a strong statement hitting his comments as “reprehensible” and “disgusting.”

Coulter’s sentiment was more saucy than outraged, but the other guys seem to be expressing genuine contempt, particularly the VFW statement. And you’ve got to admit, it was pretty disgusting when Hayes said, “I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect memory of anyone that’s fallen.” I practically have to go lie down after reading that again. It probably won’t be long before someone calls for Hayes to lose his job…oh, and wouldn’t you know it.

Hayes took no almost no time to apologize, “As many have rightly pointed out, it’s very easy for me, a TV host, to opine about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots.” Sounds perfectly reasonable. It probably won’t be long before someone says the apology wasn’t genuine.

So here’s a couple of silly questions – What exactly is Hayes supposed to be apologizing for? What did he say that’s so disgusting?

Opinion polls consistently show that the U.S. military is by far the most respected institution in the U.S. – a level of confidence that is essentially unquestioning. It’s safe to say that a large majority of Americans do not feel skeptical about much of what our military does. That level of absolute, dogmatic respect is surely a factor that pushes America toward war in far too many cases.

Libya and Iraq are two obvious examples, and our continuing occupation of Afghanistan long after Al Qaeda was defeated is another. And those are just the most recent, attention-grabbing cases – for decades there have been inventions by the U.S. military in nations all over the world, including Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, Liberia, former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Grenada, Nicaragua, and that’s just off the top of my damn head.

The U.S. has never been shy about using its military (shall we say) liberally. By all accounts, we are going to be involved in a war with Iran within the next decade or so. Maybe that wouldn’t be an inevitability if we didn’t throw around the “hero” label so cavalierly. The fact that we “hero”-worship our troops can’t be unrelated to our leaders’ willingness to make threats – when you got a lot of heroes, you got to find something to do with them.

Several more silly questions – When exactly does the term “hero” apply to U.S. soldiers? (We’re assuming that other nations’ soldiers aren’t heroes, right?) Obviously, soldiers are human beings with flaws and imperfections. Sometimes soldiers do terrible things. Abu Ghraib is an obvious example of intentional mistreatment, but all sorts of military operations result in collateral damage. If a drone strike in Pakistan kills a bunch of civilians – which is a routine occurrence – is the person who operated the drone a hero?

To be sure, Memorial Day is meant to honor deceased soldiers – so is the drone operator who kills civilians a hero if he/she is killed by a suicide bomber the next day? Would Charles Graner have been a hero if he had been killed by a detainee before the Abu Ghraib abuse had come to light?

Certainly, the circumstance of a soldier’s death must also be a consideration. Is a soldier who dies in a traffic accident automatically a hero if he/she is serving in a combat zone? How about if they die in a traffic accident in non-combat zones like South Korea or Germany? What about the victims of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, which included civilians and soldiers? What about soldiers in different eras that were conscripted, as opposed to the all-volunteer armed forces of today?

There are a lot of gray areas when it comes to military service and acts of war. Soldiers may be heroic in certain circumstances, but they can just as easily commit crimes or make mistakes with tragic consequences. It’s easy to see why someone might think labeling them all as heroes when they’re killed is problematic – particularly when such a label is clearly used as a means of legitimizing past and future U.S. military actions.

Hayes’ apology notwithstanding, I’ve never been persuaded by the argument that you can’t question the military if you’ve never served. There are plenty of conservatives who aren’t unionized public school teachers, and that won’t stop them from raising questions about that profession, nor should it. There’s nothing wrong with expressing discomfort about how we talk about military service in this country, and Hayes’ apology was unnecessary. Soldiers are adults who have chosen their profession voluntarily – I’m sure they can handle it when people who haven’t served express doubts about the popular definition of “hero.”

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