Over Memorial Day weekend, we were treated to a familiar round of what might be termed “Hero Talk” (which is not to be confused with R. Kelly’s “Real Talk:” arguably his most exquisite piece of performance art since Trapped in the Closet Pt. 1).
Unlike Real Talk, however, “Hero Talk” most often centers around men and women in the armed forces. These men and women are deserving of praise because, the argument goes, serving in the military is a prima facie act of heroism.
Whenever someone starts a conversation about heroism and the military, we are inevitably treated to a particular brand of outrage that has a familiar tenor. Quite often this outrage comes from Right-wing Culture Warriors who compete with mendacious liberal commentators in a desperate race to see who can heap more praise on the armed forces before we turn all turn red, white and blue with nationalistic fervor, having been washed clean by the ablutions of patriotism, and overcome by the delirium tremens of our post-patriotic withdrawal.
This time around, the conversation was started by Chris Hayes, who opined over Memorial Day weekend that perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to assign “hero” status to somebody simply because they wear a U.S. military uniform; that maybe you need to do something more in order to earn that status:
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.
Barely 24 hours later, Hayes, much like most left-leaning pundits who discuss this issue in public, issued an overwrought apology, striking a mendicant’s pose and begging to be granted clemency for his deviant remarks:
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.
And now queue the outrage. Ross Kaminsky, for the American Spectator:
At least Hayes had the courage to offer a sincere-sounding apology, though I’m certainly not alone with my suspicion that he truly believes everything he said, and everything his co-religionists in the cult of anti-Americanism said alongside him to besmirch our soldiers — living, dead, and fallen — on this Memorial Day weekend… They have every right to be idiots, though one would prefer that they at least recognize who is risking life and limb to protect that right. While I understand the temptation to waterboard Chris Hayes, the right answer is to understand that he represents today’s Democratic Party… and to vote against Democratic candidates, other than those who (unlike John Kerry) have served with honor, at every opportunity,
Kurt Schlichter, for Breitbart.com:[T]he real problem for Chris Hayes is that he actually said what he thinks. He thinks our soldiers are suckers and fools at best, brutal sociopaths at worst. At a minimum, he feels that honoring those who died for this country might encourage people to see that actually defending our country is a good thing. He’s not quite ready to make that leap; after all, most progressives are ambivalent about this whole “America” concept, if not actively opposed to it.
David Zurawik, in the Baltimore Sun (who unintentionally engages in self-parody):
I am not going to let anyone say, “Well, this is a legitimate intellectual critique, and thoughtful people can clearly see what he was trying to say. The blowback is just mock outrage from the right.”
No, this is pseudo-intellectual vanity and self-absorbed, TV media talk at its worst . I have a Ph.D. in American Studies, and after spending 10 years in seminars filled with too much of this kind of talk, I can accurately say that people who talk like Hayes did in his remarks are most often self-important b.s. artists[.]
Zurawik in particular is so fired up over Chris Hayes’ remarks that he accuses Hayes of being a “self-important b.s. artist” while prefacing his own comments with an authoritative reference to the fact that he has a Ph.D. in American Studies. I’m hoping that someone with a Ph.D in Literary Studies will explain to Zurawik why this gratuitous reference to his own qualifications is ironic when couched next to an accusation of self-importance.
What bothers me most about these reactions is how unrepresentative of the American military they tend to be, in terms of how actual soldiers view their own military service. Many soldiers resent being blindly praised for no other reason than the fact that they wear a military uniform. Why? Because quite often, that praise obscures their ability to communicate their often nuanced views about military life, and participation in America’s armed conflicts. The people praising them are quite often incapable of seeing past their military uniform and into their nuanced experience of military life. You can see this in the responses to this August article from The Hill. Here’s one Sgt. Lewis, who said the following while declaring his support for Ron Paul:
I am a Sergeant in the U.S. Army. I support Ron Paul and I support his foreign policy. I am sure you would not dare call me a Paultard to my face.
No, you would give me the same parroted line I hear 100 times a day, “Thank you for your service”. When I hear some flabby couch potato like you say that to me it makes me sick. Yes, I serve our country, but our wars do not.
Another, Army vet:
My best friend came home in a box wearing one of those army uniforms you spoke so favorably about. Guess he wasn’t ready for the marines but he’ll never have that chance.
I also spent three years in the army in the infantry. Not behind a desk, about half of it deployed nation building in the Balkans pre 9/11. It was stupid and counter productive.
Another, Vietnam Vet:
I am Viet Nam Vet, a combat Vet. I have killed and seen men killed. It was all for a lie. It is always for a lie. Our government sent 60,000 young men to their deaths for a lie, for profit and their own glory. Glory of being big men but not glory where they would actually serve themselves.
And here’s another Vietnam Vet, via Sullivan:
Speaking as someone who had alternatives but instead enlisted and served nearly five years from 1967 through most of 1971, including three tours in Vietnam: No, enlisting does not make one a hero. A hero is someone who had no choice but who did the job once drafted. A hero is someone who moved to a different culture to avoid killing people. A hero is like my friend Brad who, smarter than I at the time and less fooled by the lies, used boiling water, vodka, and a sharp knife to amputate his own trigger finger to avoid having to fight someone else’s war.
This is the nuance that is lost by whitewashing all members of the military with “hero” praise. Soldiers are not automatons. They are as diverse in ability, intelligence, and political disposition as the population writ large. And they, more than anyone else, know that wearing a military uniform does not automatically make you a hero. They are also uniquely qualified to appreciate when their actions don’t seem to be achieving a greater good worthy of being labeled “heroic.”
Blindly obscuring the nuance of every American soldier’s experience by uncritically assigning them the status of “hero” reduces them to nothing more than a cartoon caricature of vague, praise-worthy character traits that in no way properly describes the actual feelings of many veterans towards their military service. Worse yet, such uncritical praise is one of the most dangerous strains of political thought that courses through the veins of our body politic. Nothing could be more erosive to the democratic process, or to military accountability, than a body politic which is incapable of criticizing its men and women in uniform.