Are Soldiers Heroes?

Chris Hayes sent the right wing blogosphere into its latest hissy fit by making a perfectly reasonable statement about being uncomfortable with calling all soldiers heroes on his MSNBC show on Sunday. For the record, here’s the actual statement he made:

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 comfortable — uncomfortable — about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, 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.

No, you’re not. You’re absolutely right. We throw around the term “hero” far too casually, especially in times of war. It’s part of the myth-making and emotional blackmail that always accompanies war. There are soldiers who certainly do act heroically, and Hayes named some of those situations. We give those who engage in such heroics special recognition with things like Silver Stars and Congressional Medals of Honor. And the mere fact that we recognize genuine heroism is a reason to stop throwing the term around so casually and applying it to anyone who joins the military or goes to war.

That doesn’t mean those who don’t show such heroism are bad or cowardly, nor does it denigrate those who join the military in general. And those who claim it does are engaged in exactly the kind of ostentatious, hyper-emotional, faux-patriotic ritual gesturing that rational people should find discomforting. It triggers emotional responses that shut off rationality for most people when considering, from the safety of their own living rooms of course, whether to send other people to kill and die.

There’s a lot more we can do for those who have, in fact, gone to war, especially of the unjustified variety (and no, I do not think that all war is unjustified, though I don’t think we have fought a just war since World War II). We could start by giving them the resources to survive the trauma of what they’ve experienced, not just physically but mentally as well. More veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have now committed suicide after returning to this country than have died in those wars. We owe them every possible resource to help them cope.

And the best thing we could do to help soldiers and veterans is by not turning our brains off whenever the government tells us we have to invade a country full of dark-skinned people who haven’t done anything to harm or threaten us. The best thing we can do is prevent the creation of more veterans who carry the deep wounds of war, both physical and psychological, with them every day. That’s why reason and skepticism, two things in short supply in this country (and perhaps this species), are so vitally important.

Unfortunately, Hayes caved in to the faux super-patriots and apologized. Kind of. His apology actually says nothing at all about the issue he addressed:

On Sunday, in discussing the uses of the word “hero” to describe those members of the armed forces who have given their lives, I don’t think I lived up to the standards of rigor, respect and empathy for those affected by the issues we discuss that I’ve set for myself. I am deeply sorry for that.

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. Of course, that is true of the overwhelming majority of our nation’s citizens as a whole. One of the points made during Sunday’s show was just how removed most Americans are from the wars we fight, how small a percentage of our population is asked to shoulder the entire burden and how easy it becomes to never read the names of those who are wounded and fight and die, to not ask questions about the direction of our strategy in Afghanistan, and to assuage our own collective guilt about this disconnect with a pro-forma ritual that we observe briefly before returning to our barbecues.

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