War

Did MSNBC's Chris Hayes Say Something Terrible When He Said He Was Not Comfortable Calling Fallen Soldiers "Heroes"?

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On Sunday, liberal MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes did something you're not supposed to do, namely express mixed, conflicted opinions about soldiers.

Being anti-war is (sort of) okay and occasionally respectable as long as you clarify that World War II was fine, but to varying degrees, you simply must support the troops. The old safe anti-war standby is of course that you support the troops so much so that you want them to come home.

Maybe if he had stuck to that standby, he wouldn't have provoked any more outrage than a lefty on MSNBC would usually. But Hayes also said the following:

Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word 'hero'? I feel uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. I don't want to obviously desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that's fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, 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.

This is an old story in that Hayes has already apologized. He chose the traditional sorry, "it's easy to criticize because I am not currently fighting in a war" method. 

Hayes should have known what might happen, especially when it was near (not actually on) Memorial Day. But he raised an excellent point. Now here is your obligatory clip from the film The Americanization of Emily, where James Garner's character expresses his disapproval of memorializing war. 

This is fiction, so it's arguably overly black and white. However, it makes some biting points about war and what it means to act as if to be in the military is the best, most noble thing that a human being can do. 

Now, what Hayes expressed was a personal statement of discomfort towards the way that we are all supposed to speak about soldiers, as well as an incredibly important point to raise about what it means to assume that every single person killed while serving in the (only, I assume, U.S.) military was heroic. Even when drafted. Even in wars mostly seen as mistakes, such as World War I or Vietnam.

But, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic noted that the context of the debate was a panel show in the early morning on MSNBC and that other guests responded to Hayes' questions, but then Hayes himself offered this:

The argument on the other side of that is, we don't have a draft. This is voluntary. This is someone making a decision to take on a certain risk of that. And they're taking it on because they're bound to all of us through this social contract, through this democratic process of self-governance in which we decide collectively that we're going to go to war. And how we're going to go to war, and why we're going to go to war. And they also give up their own agency in a certain way that, for a liberal caricature like myself, seems very difficult to comprehend -- submitting so totally to what the electorate or people in power are going to decide about how to use your body, but they do that all of full volition. And if the word hero is not right, there's something about it that's noble, right?

There's something at least brave about that, sure. But of course the soldiers being memorialized include those who were drafted. The draft is one of the harshest uses of state power. It is a period of life-threatening indentured servitude that may also force you to violate cherished beliefs or morals. We could call it slavery without that being a rhetorical flourish.

So what if any of those soldiers honored had no interest being a solider? And was every single one of the 640,000-odd American soldiers killed in action since the Civil War really a hero? Confederates and Union soldiers, too? Or the ones who died of dysentery and car crashes? What are the rules about who qualifies? What about people who fought in other countries' armed forces? There are a million questions that come along with dubbing an entire kind of person heroic. They were all individuals.

Some critics said this was Memorial Day, and not the time for such things. But the pro-soldier mentality exists every day and this was Sunday before. How many buffer days does Memorial Day need before it's no longer "not the time" for questions?

Why not use the day as an excuse to seriously think about the meaning of war and soldiers and the state and such Big Topics? Or is just a day to barbecue and take the day off after all? Or a day to make oh, so witty remarks about how Hayes is just a big old woman for wanting to question life and death matters in this fashion?

It's not purely anti-war to plea for a little more nuance the way that we talk about soldiers who, by the way, Hayes never once actually insulted or said he "despised." But if a cause is unjust or someone didn't choose to participate in it or countless other qualifiers, is it true to call them all heroic? Or, to start from the other direction, if a soldier is inherently a hero, does that not at least suggest something positive about the cause in which he or she fought? 

I have no top-down mandates for who should or should not be honored with holidays or parades. And critics are of course free to respond to Hayes as harshly as they see fit, but it's still disappointing to see people trying to shut down a discussion by using the trump cards that Hayes never served in the military and various tautologies about how heroic are these heroes. If soldiers are as described, they deserve the nuance and the intellectual honesty of an explanation as to why they're heroic. War is a lot bigger than bumper stickers. And soldiers are (mostly likely) tough enough to handle a debate.

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