So it was a normal Sunday night, I was browsing on twitter, and I saw the hashtag #chrishayesbravery was trending, which I totally didn’t understand. I mean, I don’t understand most trending topics on twitter because I’m not fourteen, but this one was weird in that I both knew the person it was referring to and didn’t understand what it was about. But after some googling and poking around, I figured out that it was an angry backlash to a segment on his morning show in which he expresses discomfort with blanket referring to all military casualties as heroes. And instead of being angry, even watching the tiniest, most unfavorably-edited clip? I agreed with him.
There are a lot of things wrong with the way we think about war in America. I can’t possibly cover every single one of them in one blog post. I would probably need at least a novel to really thoroughly explore all the problems with how America views the military. (In fact, someone did! It’s called Drift, it’s by my imaginary girlfriend and heterosexuality exception, Rachel Maddow, and I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard it’s great. You should read it and just assume I probably agree with almost all of it.) But as someone who can clearly mark my political awareness as starting post-September 11, the thing that has always struck me is that Americans seem to view the military in a way that’s sort of “it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it,” way. We talk about using war in foreign policy like it’s an inevitability. We talk about the costs of war like they’re theoretical. We’re as divorced from it as we are from video games; all we know is that we need to pour money and lives into this hole and not question it, because to question it would be fundamentally unpatriotic.
I’m unsure why I’ve always had such a strong negative reaction to this. Maybe it was my hippie upbringing. Maybe it was that when I was at an impressionable, questioning age, I could never find anyone to explain in a satisfactory way why the same people who got mad about high taxes were always the same people rooting for us to go to war the loudest. Maybe it’s that I just have a really strong aversion to hurting anything unless it’s a mosquito. Whatever the reason, I have always found this mentality to be up there amongst the most repulsive of American fallacies.
There’s a story in my family about my paternal grandfather in WWII who got lost behind enemy lines. When I was little, it was presented as a “hah hah, your grandfather took the wrong turn, guess it runs in the family!” sort of story. It wasn’t until I got old enough to ask more that I learned he was on a scouting mission and his escape route got cut off. Obviously, though, since I’m here, he was fine. He and his scouting partner met up with another unit, he wrote my grandmother to tell her he was safe and to ignore that pesky presumed dead notice, and he fought for a while longer until he got shot in the leg. (Again, he was fine, he didn’t even walk with a limp.)
But I think sometimes about my grandmother, single-handedly raising my uncle, who was still an infant when this happened. Let’s say my grandfather had been found by Germans. Let’s say he was killed in action. Would it make my grandmother feel better to know he died in combat? I think about how she always had a highly anxious disposition, about how much she loved my grandfather, about how even though she lived for fifteen years after he died, she never really recovered. Would she have recovered better knowing he’d been killed by Nazis? Would it matter how he died? Would she have felt better if they shot him immediately, or would it have comforted her more if they realized he was a Jew (which, based on how he looked, wouldn’t have been that hard) and they’d taken him to a concentration camp? What about the cousins and branches of my family who didn’t come to America and never fought at all, but died in concentration camps? Is it better that they died as part of a war? Does that make what happened easier to bear?
A death is a death is a death, and deaths always hurt, even when they’re expected or relatively painless. Going to war is inviting death. A military is an organization who deals in killing other people. Weapons aren’t abstract bits of technology, they are designed to make killing easier, to remove us from it more. A death doesn’t mean more when it happens in war time. Attaching the moniker “hero” doesn’t make someone’s sibling or child or parent or spouse less dead. Neither does having a reason why they died.
“Hero” is a subjective term. It’s like calling someone “nice”. It’s a platitude we toss it around all the time, calling someone a hero for getting you coffee in the morning. But when we use it on our military, we act like it makes casualties okay, like it makes the person less dead. It’s one of the thousands of ways we find to remove ourselves from war, a way we find to justify the cost. It’s okay they died, they died a hero! That means we don’t have to think about it, right? And so the fact that Chris Hayes feels uncomfortable with blanket calling people brave or heroic simply for being killed in a war, the fact that he questions our blanket use of this term makes us reflexively angry, because how dare he. But the thing is, it doesn’t make him a bad person any more than it makes not thinking wars are a good idea unpatriotic.
Every military member I have ever talked to about why they enlisted has always had a different reason, but every time you ask how they deal with knowing their job is dealing in dying and death, they are as removed from the possibility of death as anyone else. They describe it in the same job hazard-y, dirty job but someone’s got to do it way that everyone else does. They don’t have a choice, because that is the only way you can adjust to the idea of being in a military without having some sort of existential breakdown, which is the normal human reaction to being that close to death.
But if they don’t have the luxury of thinking through what being in the military really asks of someone, then people who aren’t in the military owe it to these men and women to do that questioning for them. We owe it to them to think critically about what they do, why and how they do it, and when it’s necessary. We owe it to them to constantly question if how they’re used and how we think of what they do. And if that means we have to question even the most basic principles we hold about war, like why we link heroism and dying so closely together, I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, I see it as the most pro-military thing you can possibly do. And if people’s reactions to questioning that are as angry as the ones I saw on twitter, honestly, I consider it just a little brave, too.