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.
For this reason, I am thankful that a couple people have defended Hayes. Paul Campos:
We live in a culture in which someone like Hayes cannot suggest, even the most diffident, nuanced, and self-deprecating way, that automatically labeling every American soldier who dies in war a “hero” might be an oversimplification of a difficult set of moral and political questions without thereby releasing such a storm of indignation that he is forced to immediately recant such a terrible heresy.
Hayes’s larger point—that in honoring the dead we should not surrender our critical faculties about war—is not only correct, it’s crucial. For more than 10 years now, the Coulters and Dick Cheneys of American politics have used the pain and pride of a nation at war to cow those who might have questioned our post-9/11 wars. In 2002 many congressional Democrats were too afraid of Karl Rove to vote against authorizing the invasion of Iraq. In 2009 Barack Obama acquiesced to an escalation in Afghanistan about which he had grave doubts, in part because of the political pressure he felt from the military brass and their allies in the congressional GOP. And even now, with most Americans convinced that the Afghan War is a waste of money and blood, it remains perilous for a television host to use Memorial Day to ask why our troops are still dying there.
Hayes wasn’t actually expressing discomfort with granting the bravery or achievements or noble qualities of American troops. His fear was that in addition to its strict definition, hero had an unavoidable connotation attached to it — that for some people, hearing that a warrior is a hero carries with it the implication that the war in which he bravely partook was a just one. It’s a step farther to say that it’s justified to feel uncomfortable bestowing a rightful title due to the wrongheaded way others might react to it. But why should pondering that question be verboten?
It should not be difficult for us to admit that military service alone is insufficient grounds for hero status. If it is, then every soldier who’s ever served in uniform, including history’s less well-respected regimes, can certainly claim to be a hero in their own regard.
Furthmore, many of the soldiers who served in history’s less-than-popular regimes were, like U.S. soldiers, simply ordinary men who were trying to make it out alive. Yet that alone does not necessarily make their sacrifices heroic or noble. Stalin’s soldiers were certainly not making noble sacrifices when they occupied half of Europe in the decades following World War 2. Hitler’s soldiers were not making noble sacrifices when they fought under the banner of the Third Reich. Mussolini’s soldiers were not making noble sacrifices when they fought to preserve Fascism in Italy. British soldiers were not making noble sacrifices when they committed atrocities in the Falklands while fighting a purely political war. U.S. Soldiers in Vietnam were not making noble sacrifices when they were being ordered to burn villages to the ground, salt the earth with toxic chemicals, and fight to protect a U.S. puppet government in South Vietnam that was entirely corrupt and stole from both the U.S. and the Vietnamese people.
This is not the conclusion of an effete liberal: the testimony of veterans recounted earlier in this post demonstrates that there are not a few soldiers who feel this way about their service. Moreover, they understand why the language of heroism is problematic. They recognize that their service was not per se heroic merely because they wore a U.S. military uniform.
This is the crux of the issue: we often use heroism in America to obscure the fact that, in many cases, what happens to U.S. soldiers overseas is not heroic, but simply tragic. America’s tendency to uncritically label every U.S. soldier a hero unwittingly obscures the fact that many of the sacrifices in our past conflicts achieved no greater purpose, and that soldiers sometimes die in vain. They die in unnecessary conflicts, for bad reasons, towards no readily identifiable greater good. They die despite performing their duties with dedication and skill. Yet it does nobody any good when our leaders expend their valor on military missions that have a net negative impact on the safety and security of the United States, not to mention the countries they are ordered to invade and/or occupy. We should not allow warhawks to lend credibility to this state of affairs by dressing it in the language of heroism. They aren’t helping the soldiers. They’re helping themselves.
We left Vietnam after nearly two decades of conflict. And we left with nothing to show for it except hundreds of American servicemen who were left to rot in Viet Cong prisons. Countless thousands of American soldiers died in the jungles of Vietnam, just as thousands have died in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. And there too, you will be able to see yet another failed foreign policy experiment reach its tragic conclusion. Just today, Taliban fighters broke into a prison complex and freed hundreds of captured enemy fighters that “took years” to lock up. Earlier this month, it was reported that the Taliban are forging secret alliances behind the U.S. government’s back. The likely result, after our departure, will be a joint Taliban-Afghan governing agreement that leaves substantial portions of the country controlled by the same Taliban we allegedly toppled 11 years ago. Tell me: why is it heroic for American men and women to have sacrificed in a war that has achieved virtually none of its long-term policy goals?
American sons and daughters have fought for 11 years in Afghanistan. Those men and women have lost hundreds of body parts, suffered absolutely horrendous injuries, and lost their lives to endemic violence, while occupying a country that neither Alexander nor the Soviets could defeat. Shall we call their sacrifices heroic? Why is it heroic for someone to die in a war that achieved nothing? Is that not rather a tragedy?
Any heroism that flows from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was robbed from American soldiers by the civilian leaders who committed them to unnecessary conflicts that achieved no greater good. It was robbed from them again when, after it became apparent that Afghanistan and Iraq were boondoggles, our civilian leaders kept them in those countries with no clear mission and a "hearts and minds strategy" that we undermine every time we drop bombs on innocent civilians.
To the extent that true heroism endures in these conflicts, you will find that the most heroic acts by soldiers are often situations in which they are not defending our liberty, but defending themselves. The acts of valor that move us to tears are the ones in which American soldiers are acting to save their own lives from the violence that our leaders have thrown them into. That’s why it was heroic when Dakota Meyer evacuated 12 wounded American soldiers under intense enemy fire in Kunar Province, 2009. That’s why it was heroic when Salvatore Giunta saved Josh Brennan from being taken prisoner by insurgents in the Korengal Valley (though Brennan later died from his injuries).
Yet here again; Giunta’s heroism, and Brennan’s sacrifice, would later be proved to be in vain: U.S. forces later pulled out of the Korengal Valley after five years of constant firefights, ambushes, and mounting casualties. The Washington Post notes at the link above that “It was as if the five years of almost ceaseless firefights and ambushes had been a misunderstanding — a tragic, bloody misunderstanding.” So Giunta and Brennan’s sacrifices were made during a five year “misunderstanding,” during which countless soldiers lost their lives for no purpose. Is that heroic? No, it’s tragic. It’s tragic because Josh Brennan’s mother no long has a son, and Salvatore Giunta’s heroism achieved no greater purpose other than to potentially save the life of his squadmate, who later died as a result of a conflict that achieved no greater goal.
And what of those soldiers who do not act heroically? Was it heroic when a U.S. Army Sergeant massacred 16 civilians in Kandahar? Was it heroic when U.S. soldiers urinated on dead bodies, offending virtually the entire Muslim world? Was it heroic when a U.S. soldier threw a helpless puppy off the side of a cliff while his squad mate video-taped it? Was it heroic when U.S. soldiers gang-raped a 14-year old Iraqi girl in 2006? Was it heroic when U.S. soldiers massacred innocent civilians in Haditha, after which a U.S. commanding officer described their deaths as “a cost of doing business?”
The point is this: some soldiers behave heroically, while others do not. Merely putting the uniform of the United States military on does not make you a hero. Plenty of people behave is extremely immoral, dishonorable ways while wearing the United States uniform, and they are not heroes. But what is more important is that we must be able to speak about the senseless tragedies that are daily inflicted upon our troops without obscuring it in the language of heroism, which is all too often linked up with the trope that they are “defending our freedom.” When 60,000 young men died in the jungles of Vietnam with nothing to show for it, it is difficult to convince me that they were sent there to defend our freedom. When the Taliban and the Afghan government are colluding with one another behind the U.S. government’s back, it is difficult to convince me that our troops are there “defending our freedom.” When U.S. troops spend five years fighting in the Korengal Valley, and they are then pulled out with nothing to show for their sacrifice, it is difficult to convince me that they were “defending our freedom.”
For far too long, the political discourse in this country has obscured the tragedies inflicted on American soldiers by calling those tragedies heroism. We rationalize the death of American soldiers in far off places by pretending that they died “protecting our freedom.” But that’s a sentiment that many U.S. soldiers don’t even share. And it is intellectually dishonest for outraged individuals to speak on their behalf when they are necessarily talking over soldiers who disagree with them.
There is plenty of heroism in the United States military. Whether we call a soldier’s sacrifice tragedy or heroism, it should still be recognized. But not in a manner that tends to obscure the real cost of military action. Placing an existential imprimatur of heroism on every person who wears a military uniform does not get us anywhere. It certainly does not “support” our troops. If anything, it is a subconscious attempt to give meaning to the sacrifices our troops are forced to make on a daily basis. That’s understandable. But if we are to have an honest discussion about our foreign policy, then we can no longer obscure the fact that not every soldier deserves to be labeled a hero, and that sometimes, their sacrifices are made in vain. When that happens, it’s not heroism. It’s tragedy. And obscuring it with a patriotic chorus of outrage every time someone has the balls to point out the distinction between them (heroism & tragedy) does more to keep soldiers unnecessarily in harm’s way than it does to actually, really, support them.
- getmesomedopamine reblogged this from laliberty
- wingedmorueco likes this
- balderdashboard likes this
- moonbehindclouds reblogged this from letterstomycountry
- organization likes this
- hidden-cities likes this
- asafasafas likes this
- comrade-kitty reblogged this from occupydfw
- aarchitects reblogged this from letterstomycountry
- inspirement reblogged this from godlessrevolutionary
- godlessrevolutionary reblogged this from letterstomycountry
- godlessrevolutionary likes this
- historic-upstart likes this
- 4thcoming likes this
- sarahlee310 reblogged this from letterstomycountry
- thecamcorder likes this
- rienfleche likes this
- jesuschristmarie-theyre-reindeer likes this
- myonlinecollection reblogged this from letterstomycountry
- mymarketingfile likes this
- graceinmyheart likes this
- occupydfw reblogged this from letterstomycountry
- phil0kalia likes this
- anarcho-alowisney likes this
- prettayprettaygood likes this
- wearerobotafterall likes this
- escapismtime reblogged this from fearandwar
- jmsouthe likes this
- gracenote likes this
- apoplecticskeptic likes this
- thebirdvsthelion likes this
- politico2012 likes this
- This was featured in #Politics
- jgreendc likes this
- booksofthought likes this
- inside-illusion likes this
- pvls likes this
- thecriticlaughs likes this
- laliberty reblogged this from letterstomycountry
- alice44 likes this
- sabistan likes this
- sigma-x likes this
- themovedmind likes this
- teteroroma likes this
- ilikemymenlikeilikemygrunge likes this
- tolivelovelearn reblogged this from fearandwar
- spinlighted likes this
- blackbeatnik reblogged this from unapologeticallylibertarian