Americans and Our Military

by Deborah Pearlstein

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.

3 Responses

  1. This is indeed something that Europeans find strange about Americans – their devotion, if one can use this term, to their flag and soldiers. There is no way that 80% in any continental European country would say they support their troops ‘no matter what’ – soldiers are not heroes in most of Europe (France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal for sure), but at most a necessary evil. This is of course full of idealism, but not dissimilar to the idealism of considering them all heroes…

  2. It has been a while since Phil Carter has posted. Years. I have always assumed that he was hit full-on by realpolitik (in his subsequent appointed position, which he resigned from only a few months later), crushing his eloquent idealism into silence. 

    45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have filed for disability due to service-related injuries. They just keep sending the same dwindling number of people back again and again and again. Seven years into Afghanistan, I knew a soldier who had been deployed there five times.

  3. Thoughtful and even handed critique, and on target in my view.  My reaction was a little less charitable:  Insulting, in poor taste, badly timed, imprecise, clumsy and uninformed. He very properly apologized for his careless slight to every American who ever died for his or her country, whether volunteer or conscript, in a just or an unjust cause. “Theirs was not to reason why, theirs was just to do and die.”” 
    No living soldier, sailor, airmen, Marine or Coast Guardsman that I know or have ever known would claim the title “hero.” Even living recipients of the Medal of Honor reject the label. And not every soldier serves with distinction. But every one does serve. Us. What, we should ask, is a citizen’s duty to his or her country…and which ones of us go beyond?
    Perhaps our labels do not signify: “… in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
    In any event, Hayes fundamental error, it seems to me, was conflating just behavior in war with just cause for going to war……we need not glorify war; but the dead soldiers who died where their country sent them do not bear that burden. They died doing their duty. I suggest that to recognize the virtue in that sacrifice is no wrong; to fail to do so, however, is to abdicate responsibility for the setting of that duty.  Are we truly wrong to call the sacrifice heroic, at the risk of glorifying war?
    Hayes blundering, even if well intentioned, stumble in this matter calls to my mind Kipling’s poem about “Tommy Atkins,” and an oft quoted remark of John Stuart Mill, both offered below without further comment:
    “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling, which thinks that nothing is worth war, is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”
    – John Stuart Mill

    I went into a public-’ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
    The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
    The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
    I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
    O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
    But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
    The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
    O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.
    I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
    They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
    They sent me to the gallery or round the music-’alls,
    But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
    For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
    But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
    The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
    O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.
    Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
    Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
    An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
    Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
    Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
    But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
    The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
    O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.
    We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
    But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
    An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
    Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
    While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
    But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind,
    There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
    O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind.
    You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
    We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
    Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
    The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
    For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”

    But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
    An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
    An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!


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