Americans and Our Military
Of all the items to capture blogospheric attention this Memorial Day weekend – one of the few times a year in the States when more than a handful of popular news outlets focus on what it means for our military and our country that we have been at war for more than a decade – MSNBC pundit Chris Hayes’ remarks on the nature of heroism seem to have risen to the top. Here’s Politico’s summary of the remarks, the backlash, and the subsequent apology; the actual 12-minute video clip of the conversation is here.
In essence, the controversy surrounds Hayes’ questioning of whether it was appropriate to use the word “heroes” to describe every member of the military who died in combat. The idea was inartfully expressed (and laden with caveats and hesitations), but it amounted to the notion that calling all members of the military heroes was a form of rhetoric that tended to obscure more complicated questions of the justness/unjustness of the particular war. Hayes’ idea was then embraced and expanded upon by the other pundits at his roundtable. Not so by the blogs.
Several things. First, Hayes deserves enormous credit for devoting his program to the wars and in particular their effects on veterans and their families. Immediately before the panel discussion, he interviewed US Marine Lt. Col. Steve Beck, one of the soldiers responsible for telling family members that their loved one had been killed. Immediately after the panel, he interviewed Mary Kirkland, whose son Army Specialist Derrick Kirkland was diagnosed with PTSD and committed suicide at age 23. Their stories are, of course, excruciating to hear – which may well be part of the reason why we don’t hear them often enough. Hayes was, it seems clear, trying to remedy the more typical lack of focus on these issues – made possible in part by what a tiny fraction of Americans it is who actually serve, and by the many ways (some of which I noted last week) in which the American public has become less able and less inclined to check the conduct of war.
Second, Hayes is hardly alone in wondering about whether the term “hero” is always the right one to use. Here, for example, is Iraq vet Phil Carter writing in the L.A. Times in 2006:
America’s deepening civil-military divide crystallized for me two weeks after I had returned from Iraq, while sitting at a Starbucks in the San Fernando Valley. I looked around the cafe and saw a dozen people ordering coffee, talking, reading and studying, while the baristas were busily serving drinks. All of a sudden, it hit me. Even though we are a nation at war, the war does not really seem to exist here in America. Frequently over the last two months, my friends have referred to me and other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as “heroes.” This has disturbed me a great deal, forming another sort of alienation that is likely to become particularly acute this Veterans Day. American society venerates all soldiers as heroes, yet we in the military reserve that label for those who truly go above and beyond the call of duty. To us, the ordinary soldiers who merely served in harm’s way, the label feels like a garish shirt — it neither describes us well nor fits us comfortably…. I judge myself by the code of a warrior. That ethos demands selfless service, not aggrandizement. It praises the team, not the individual. And it saves its highest accolades for those who distinguish themselves through extraordinary acts of valor. As veterans, we know the real heroes among us; many of them did not come home. Awarding this distinction to everyone cheapens the accomplishments of those who earned it — and makes the rest of us feel guilty that we have somehow stolen recognition from the worthy.
Which brings me to a final point for now. The Hayes discussion seemed ill-handled in a variety of ways. Among them, Lt. Col. Beck participated in the show (not the group discussion) by satellite. The only folks at the actual table talking about heroism were a group of journalists, none of whom were introduced as having any record of military service (or, oddly, much visible knowledge of military affairs). Is it possible to have a real conversation about civil-military affairs without a member of the military participating? Of course it’s possible. But I think such discussions are inevitably poorer – and predictably more alienating – for their exclusions. Still, however I might’ve designed the discussion differently, the worst outcome of all here would be not having such discussions at all. As Hayes and others have noted, the country has been living in remarkable silence about the wars this past decade. But inattention and best wishes have done us no favors. What they have done is left us with a nation in which 80% of us “support the troops.” And 90% of us are unable to locate Afghanistan on a map.