Chris Hayes, Bravery, and What It Means to Be A Hero

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.


4 responses to “Chris Hayes, Bravery, and What It Means to Be A Hero

  1. The big question you are not addressing is one you (and Chris Hayes) allude to – how do you make the bad guys stop?

    You address your Jewish grandfather fighting against the Nazis. If not that, then how do you get the Nazis to stop? Economic sanctions? Drum circles? Hunger strikes in the concentration camps? None of those things would end the murder.

    The only way to make the Nazis stop was to confront them with superior force. (“Superior Force” is a euphemism for killing people, and doing it better than the other side does.) Your grandfather was part of that. I suspect he was proud to have been part of it. I also suspect he did not want to die doing what he did – but, if given a choice between leaving behind a world without Nazis, or living in a world controlled by Nazis, I suspect he would choose to leave you with the world without Nazis. When I packed up for my tour in Iraq, I did it with the knowledge that I might not come back, but that I needed to make the world a better place for my daughters.

    None of us want to die, but it happens. Every person eventually dies. What value will your death have? Will you have spent your life making the world a better place? Will you have spent your life confronting evil? Your grandfather was part of the force that stopped the Nazis. I was part of the force that brought peace to Bosnia and Kosovo. Where have you brought peace? Where have you made the bad guys stop?

  2. I think you’re missing the point, actually. The argument isn’t that wars don’t happen or should never happen, the argument is that wars happen too often, and that cheapens both the sacrifice required to fight in them and the lives that are lost. By labeling all casualties as heroic, you almost excuse people from thinking about the grim reality of what that death actually means and how it happened.

    When a country goes to war, ideally, it should do so when there is no other choice. It should do so with the romance of war stripped away entirely, and it should know that no matter if a death is heroic or not, it is a death. If a country decides that those are risks worth taking, then going to war is acceptable. But the way we treat war now is unacceptably removed from that reality, and THAT is the essence of the argument.

    I firmly believe, and I have always believed, that thinking of life as a constant fight and dividing people into camps of “bad” and “good” is both overly simplistic and unproductive. The world isn’t filled with people lurking in dark corners just waiting to come at you for no other reason than they just decided to be “bad” that day. There isn’t a dark and evil army amassing and waiting to strike. This is not the Lord of the Rings. The world is a bunch of people all trying to do what they think is right and fair, and terming someone as “bad” just because they don’t agree with you about what “right” and “fair” means is a surefire way to get no one to want to cooperate with you and to make everything ten times harder than it needs to be.

    When I think of what makes the world a better place, I generally think of people being happier, and that generally means fewer dead people or people having to leave their families to go fight for things that never needed to be fought about in the first place. There are plenty of ways to make the world a better place. Fighting doesn’t need to be one of them. In fact, fighting usually just makes things worse.

  3. I would say, right on to you both. Questioning the status quo, the very accepted and taken for granted notions is rarely if ever a bad thing and I think in both cases you have good, valid points to make.

  4. I wouldn’t go so far as to divide the world into bad and good camps. There are a lot of people that I disagree with, who have done nothing wrong and do not deserve any retaliation. They can live their lives just as I live mine.

    How would you categorize (or think about) the Nazis? They thought that “right and fair” included killing all the Jews, as the Jews caused all their problems. They also thought that “right and fair” included killing gays and gypsies. So, at what point would it be okay to call them “bad”?

    How about al Qaeda? Their long term goal is a worldwide Caliphate, rule by Muslim law. Under this, women are treated as property of men, which they regard as “right and fair.” They developed a long-term strategy to draw the US into war, through progressively larger attacks. The 9/11 attacks were specifically planned to kill people that al Qaeda sees as representative of Western society, although most were what the Geneva conventions define as “noncombatants.” This is what they saw as “right and fair.” At what point can we make a moral judgement that this was “bad”?

    The point of Memorial Day, and honoring those who died in combat, is to recognize that they took action to defend their own. The dead of 9/11, and of the Holocaust, were victims. They died at the hands of evil men, but they had not made the decision to fight the evil men. Those who died in combat made a decision to fight. They made a decision to oppose evil.

    They made a decision that the principle, the world they would leave behind, was more important than their own life. This is what we honor.

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