Are Soldiers Heroes?

Are Soldiers Heroes? May 31, 2012

Chris Hayes sent the right wing blogosphere into its latest hissy fit by making a perfectly reasonable statement about being uncomfortable with calling all soldiers heroes on his MSNBC show on Sunday. For the record, here’s the actual statement he made:

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.

No, you’re not. You’re absolutely right. We throw around the term “hero” far too casually, especially in times of war. It’s part of the myth-making and emotional blackmail that always accompanies war. There are soldiers who certainly do act heroically, and Hayes named some of those situations. We give those who engage in such heroics special recognition with things like Silver Stars and Congressional Medals of Honor. And the mere fact that we recognize genuine heroism is a reason to stop throwing the term around so casually and applying it to anyone who joins the military or goes to war.

That doesn’t mean those who don’t show such heroism are bad or cowardly, nor does it denigrate those who join the military in general. And those who claim it does are engaged in exactly the kind of ostentatious, hyper-emotional, faux-patriotic ritual gesturing that rational people should find discomforting. It triggers emotional responses that shut off rationality for most people when considering, from the safety of their own living rooms of course, whether to send other people to kill and die.

There’s a lot more we can do for those who have, in fact, gone to war, especially of the unjustified variety (and no, I do not think that all war is unjustified, though I don’t think we have fought a just war since World War II). We could start by giving them the resources to survive the trauma of what they’ve experienced, not just physically but mentally as well. More veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have now committed suicide after returning to this country than have died in those wars. We owe them every possible resource to help them cope.

And the best thing we could do to help soldiers and veterans is by not turning our brains off whenever the government tells us we have to invade a country full of dark-skinned people who haven’t done anything to harm or threaten us. The best thing we can do is prevent the creation of more veterans who carry the deep wounds of war, both physical and psychological, with them every day. That’s why reason and skepticism, two things in short supply in this country (and perhaps this species), are so vitally important.

Unfortunately, Hayes caved in to the faux super-patriots and apologized. Kind of. His apology actually says nothing at all about the issue he addressed:

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.

As many have rightly pointed out, it’s very easy for me, a TV host, to opine about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots. Of course, that is true of the overwhelming majority of our nation’s citizens as a whole. One of the points made during Sunday’s show was just how removed most Americans are from the wars we fight, how small a percentage of our population is asked to shoulder the entire burden and how easy it becomes to never read the names of those who are wounded and fight and die, to not ask questions about the direction of our strategy in Afghanistan, and to assuage our own collective guilt about this disconnect with a pro-forma ritual that we observe briefly before returning to our barbecues.

But in seeking to discuss the civilian-military divide and the social distance between those who fight and those who don’t, I ended up reinforcing it, conforming to a stereotype of a removed pundit whose views are not anchored in the very real and very wrenching experience of this long decade of war. And for that I am truly sorry.

And PR bullshit triumphs over rationality once again.

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  • calebt

    Hayes’s apology got me incredibly angry.

    He made a legitimate, contrarian point about the subject of heroism. Then he apologized for it (obviously, because he was under pressure by MSNBC to make the apology or risk losing his job), and now, he’s given the other side the ammunition to shoot down anybody else who wants to question this aspect of war.

    I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done the same thing as Hayes, but it irritates me that the side of hysterical, anti-rational hackery wins again.

  • More veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have now committed suicide after returning to this country than have died in those wars.

    Yesterday, I watched a video where Linkara got a lot of the TWGTG reviewers to cover Southland Tales. One of the stupid lines that was thrown around a lot was “pimps don’t commit suicide” because the writer was under the delusion that “pimp” was American slang for badass, that soldiers are all badasses, and thus soldiers don’t commit suicide.

    The explanation for the phrase was stupider than the standard interpretation.

  • slc1

    There’s a lot more we can do for those who have, in fact, gone to war, especially of the unjustified variety (and no, I do not think that all war is unjustified, though I don’t think we have fought a just war since World War II).

    Most regretfully, I am going to have to take exception to this statement by our host. IMHO, the Korean War, at least at its outset, was a just war. South Korea was invaded by North Korea, an act of aggression by a repressive Stalinist dictatorship. The US, under UN authorization, was perfectly justified in intervening. The problem was President Truman’s failure to control General MacArthur after the latter’s brilliant Inchon landing strategy. Truman allowed MacArthur to advance into North Korea and approach the Yalu River which was the border between North Korea and Communist China, thus presenting an apparent threat to the latter and turning a ripost to the North Korean invasion into a war to “liberate” North Korea, which went beyond the justifications for the intervention.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    The irony is that these people who use “hero” to describe anyone willing to hold a gun and shoot refuse to use the word for real heroes like Desmond Doss, Thomas Bennett and Joseph LaPointe. These men were conscientious objectors who allowed themselves to be drafted even as they refused to take up arms against another human being; they served as medical corpmen on the battlefield and received the Medal of Honor for putting the safety of their comrades ahead of their own. Bennett and LaPointe were so honored posthumously, having given their lives to save others.

    That is REAL heroism, something that the war-mongers wouldn’t recongnize if it bit them in the crotch.

  • weaver

    I would also like to take exception to the claim that we haven’t fought a “just war” since WWII. In addition to Korea, I think our interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were absolutely just, and were great examples of both the use of force and how to conduct post-conflict nation building. Unfortunately, we didn’t remember those lessons when A-stan and Iraq came around.

    But as a 20+ year veteran of the US Army, and having served in Kosovo, Iraq and A-stan, I do agree that not all Soldiers are heroes. I’m not one, for example. But I do know some, and am very proud to have served with them.

    The ultra-right blogosphere reaction is typical – and it’s hypocritical, as most if not all of them have no time in uniform themselves. Those of us who have served have no issue with noting that not all those in uniform are heroes – heck, some of them were downright dirtbags, and we took active measures to kick them out of the military!

    Are Soldiers generally deserving of respect? I think so – especially in the last few years, when it was clear that anyone enlisting would be sent to war, and it wasn’t just a path to some college money and a supposed career transfer. But most don’t even get a chance to display heroism – they’re just not put in the wrong place at the wrong time to have to do something heroic to enable others to survive.

    It’s almost a cliche – and has been since WWII at least – but I’m quite content to say “No, I’m not a hero – but I’ve served with a few.”

  • Being a soldier is a slightly less immoral job than being a cop. But it’s still pretty bad.

    Being a cop is inherently immoral because, as part of the job, you’re assuming that you’ll enforce laws that you don’t necessarily agree with. One could only be a moral cop in a society in which the cop agreed 100% with the laws and enforced them 100% consistently. Obviously, the response many cops have to this dilemma is to treat the law as ad hoc and only to enforce it whenever they feel like it, thereby committing an injustice.

    Being a soldier has somewhat the same problem, in that you’re agreeing in advance to obey orders that you may or may not later agree are right. We train soldiers about what is a “lawful order” and how to protest or refuse an unlawful order, but you can see that doesn’t happen very often – how many soldiers refused to attack Iraq?

    Soldiers are not heroes, they are prepared to kill upon someone else’s

    orders and have effectively abdicated their control over their own actions.

    To some degree, these issues apply in all jobs (a burger flipper is agreeing in advance to flip burgers for serial killers, should one show up requesting a burger) but we acknowledge that the consequences of burger flipping are not as serious as those of the armed professions.

    Only a bootlicker in training respects soldiers or cops. But anyone with a brain fears them, at least slightly. For good reason.

  • The problem was President Truman’s failure to control General MacArthur after the latter’s brilliant Inchon landing strategy.

    There was also the punitive mass bombing campaign that went on after the North Koreans ceased hostilities. They were literally bombed back to the stone age for a while.

  • I’m a veteran, and I agree with Hayes’s original statement. I’m also pretty frustrated with his apology.

    The whole thing about calling the troops “heroes” is that subconsciously it means you don’t have to take care of them or take steps to keep them safe or use them in appropriate ways. It is the same thing that causes people to emphasize the voluntary nature of military service. We’re all volunteer heroes who asked to be there and would be dishonored by showing too much concern for our safety… at least according to people who watched some crap action movies as their entire education on warfare.

    They say “We’ve got to WIN! or else we’ve dishonored the troops! We’ve got to buy more high-tech gear to fight third-world armies, why do you hate our heroes?” First off, who the hell is “we”? And what counts as a win? And why does anyone think all that high-cost crap actually benefits the troops? It took years to get everyone proper body armor and armored Hummers, but they had DECADES of overpriced underperforming big-dollar items. You can’t hide as much graft and corruption in a ceramic plate as you can in a $100-million jet. And no one looks too hard, or they get beat over the head with the “hero” nonsense until they stop looking.

  • mkoormtbaalt

    Like countless others, I’m a veteran who is not a hero. I don’t deserve, nor expect other people’s admiration or respect just because I represented our nation during wartime. I enjoy our rights and freedoms, but my time in the military did little to ensure that those continue. I did not save the lives of the innocent, nor risk my life for the benefit of others. My reasons for enlisting were a calculated risk, knowing that we were at war, but still needing the financial aid for education and the leg up that the experience would give me. I had other reasons, such as wanting to serve the country, wanting to leave home, wanting to make my parents proud, but those were the primary motivators. In that respect, I’m little better than a mercenary. We don’t honor hired guns based solely on their occupation and we don’t owe that honor simply because someone has served.

  • dingojack

    Is a State-side supply sergeant a hero too? Sure what they do is necessary, but heroic?

    Are soldiers who kill civilians heroes automatically whether the killing is justified or not?

    In war lots of things happen, some are good, some not so, a blanket-term demeans those who do the former and shields those that do the latter*.

    In my opinion, such as it is.



    *and gives unjustified, and unwanted, credit to the majority that are in between these two extremes.

  • eric

    Given that two vets just came down in favor of Hayes’ original comment, I’m not going to disagree with them. But I do think those who put themselves in danger for me deserve recognition for that. Mk @9 – you may not have been a combatant nor joined out of noble sentiment, but you still showed a willingness to become a combatant, if needed. Maybe ‘hero’ is the wrong word, but IMO the folk who put themselves “on deck” for combat deserve some recognition by us “in the hole” civvies, even if you never have to go to bat.

    I get Hayes’ comment, but personally, I’ve never thought the statement “our soldiers are heros” implied, inferred, or lead in any way to “this war is justified.” I’ve also never interpreted it as meaning “less medical care is needed” (to address Joe’s point). In a sane world, voluntarily jumping into a pool to save someone should make you more deserving of a towel and state-funded follow-up health check-up, not less deserving. If society wants to encourage that behavior, they should reward it by taking care of the people who do it.

  • Dennis N

    I think too much attention has been made to the heroes part and not enough to the “rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war” part.

    If all of our soldiers are heroes, they must be doing something heroic. If what they’re doing is waging war, is war heroic?

    His point is a nuanced one, and our national dialogue does not handle nuance well. The reason he is uncomfortable with the label hero is not because soldiers are not heroes, but because of the patriotic rhetoric rhetoric that was used and abused in the lead up to an war based on lies, where honest dissent was stifled. When your moral concerns for dead civilians is shouted down with “OUR SOLIDERS ARE HEROES, HOW DARE YOU INSULT THEM” over and over again, you can become uncomfortable with using it yourself.

    What was an honest attempt to raise the level of dialogue, has been used to drag another outrage through the mud. Hayes spent most of his show arguing for better soldier care and a discussion of the tragedy that is was for both sides, but that didn’t get wider play all week. All we get is more impersonal, generic flag waving. This is why we can’t have nice things.

  • left0ver1under

    Labelling all soldiers as “heroes” is a form of propaganda, a desire to silence questioning of their actions, and in a large number of cases, their war crimes. I don’t know when the trend to overuse the word started (well after the Abu Ghraib scandal), but I’m hearing it more and more after US and UK soldiers are caught engaging in unspeakable acts, as media spin to silence valid criticism.

    And, unsurprisingly, those who push for the use of the word are those who refuse to talk about the rising number of US soldiers suffering PTSD and needing long term medical care after their discharge. Since the Walter Reed scandal became big news in 2007, how many times have you seen or heard any stories about the declining quality of treatment or the rising number of suicides? The “mainstream media” (the wall street owned media) has perpetrated a conspiracy of silence on this, as complicit in hiding the story as they were in not publishing photos of coffins.

  • I feel comfortable — uncomfortable — about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.

    The irony is, this is exactly why they attacked him. Not because he insulted anyone, but because he made a case against the glorification of war.

    Not only should Hayes not have apologized, he should have used their reaction as proof of his point. Or at least, that’s what he should have done if we lived in a remotely sane and mature political culture.

  • dingojack

    During the sixties Englaish Playwright,Tom Stoppard went to see a show in London’s West-end.

    For some reason he was running late and so came into the theatre in the dark. He felt his way into a seat and began to watch the play. It was ‘Oh, What Lovely War’.

    During the interval, the houselights came up and most of the audience hurried off to the foyer. Stoppard, looking around at the audience for the first time, noticed that many seemed to be old men.

    Suddenly he felt a hand grip his right forearm, turning around he found himself looking at an old man, tears running down his face freely. The old veteren (for that was what he, and the majority of the audience were) whispered: “It’s really was like that you know!”

    Dulce et Decorum Est, eh?


  • PS – as a veteran who joined up to get the enlistment bonus for a new motorcycle, I am not a “hero”

    If I may also add, I am really annoyed by the airlines that are doing the “military personnel in uniform board first” routine. I was at Dulles yesterday and watched a bunch of REMF board the plane. Nice pressed BDUs and briefcases.

  • sosw

    There in an apparently universal cultural bias toward considering military strength as “heroism”.

    I live in a country with universal conscription. Personally, I’ve refused, as have many others, not because we’re not patriotic (my personal reason is that if we were in a war, I want to choose which side I’m on for myself), but because we aren’t naive.

    My cousin married a guy who had likewise not served in our national military, a fact that was viewed slightly negatively by her father…despite the fact that, unlike most people in our military, this guy had actually spent considerable time in war-zones, and worked to help civilians in such situations at risk to his own life.

    I’d consider that much more heroic than any inherent “heroism” in military service.

  • sosw

    I live in a country with universal conscription. Personally, I’ve refused, as have many others, not because we’re not patriotic (my personal reason is that if we were in a war, I want to choose which side I’m on for myself),

    To be honest, there are many more reasons, not all of them noble, one of them being that I am so extremely anti-authoritarian that I’d simply get myself into a whole lot of trouble if I ever tried to live in a military environment…

  • PS – as a veteran who joined up to get the enlistment bonus for a new motorcycle, I am not a “hero” At best I was a mercenary. And I stopped showing up part way through my reserve drills because they were bullshit. Yet, I made a comment to someone that I was a veteran and they immediately thanked me for my service. Ugh!

    If I may also add, I am really annoyed by the airlines that are doing the “military personnel in uniform board first” routine. I was at Dulles yesterday and watched a bunch of REMF board the plane. Nice pressed BDUs and briefcases.

  • (oops! spotty internet dual-post)

  • As someone growing up in Britain, the wholesale hero-worship of American soldiers in American society still seems bizarre to me. Unless you have military connections, then the only time the armed forces are on the public consciousness in the UK is “Poppy Day” (November 11th) and even then the recognition is muted compared with Memorial Day commemorations.

    My young British nephew (about 13 at the time) was visibly shocked by the overt celebration of the military when we visited Sea World in San Antonio a couple of years after the Iraq War started. He could not understand why they would celebrate war in such a way. I had to explain to him that you had to separate the soldiers doing their jobs from the politicians who were making the decisions from the safety of Washington thousands of miles away.

    It is not surprising that most nations who glorify their military are dictatorships or have totalitarian tendencies — an irony that the vast majority of authoritarian right wingers completely fail to see. The only real threat to the collapse of democracy in America is from the right.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Someone should follow up on this by sponsoring a bill in Congress to award every hero who served in the recent wars the Congressional Medal of Honor.

    After all, they’re heros — right?

  • D. C. Sessions

    Are soldiers who kill civilians heroes automatically whether the killing is justified or not?

    Good point. There should also be a medal for those troops who round up women for the other troops to rape. In addition, of course, to the medals for raping them.

  • puppygod

    I’ll tell you a story.

    Back in the 1945, before even my mom was conceived, my grandfather decided that enough is enough and he have had it with the motherfucking nazis in his motherfucking country, and went to Berlin to kick ass of the guy with funny mustache. And he did. With a little help from his friends. He even got shot, but he survived to tell the story. Over 10000 of his comrades wasn’t so lucky.

    At first glance it seems like epic story of heroism and glory.

    But you see, what he really did… By the April 1945 the Wehrmacht was in total disarray, low on weapons, ammo, fuel and personnel. Anything, really. So defense of Berlin was mostly handed down to Volkssturm – self-defense forces composed of anybody capable of carrying weapons. Elderly, teenagers, housewives – even wounded and crippled soldiers sent back had to pick up arms again when front caught up to them. And after lots and lots of bombing Berlin was practically a pile of rubble. So, what my grandfather really did was to pump shell after shell from his cannon into a pile of rubble until it stopped shooting back. Then rolled his cannon up to the next pile of rubble where women and kids were hiding with panzerfausts and home-made rifles and started blowing them up again… And again…

    Some 1 out 10 Germans didn’t live to the end of war. But while the war finally ended, it didn’t feel like victory – 1 out of 6 compatriots of my grandfather were dead, his country in ruin and handed down to communist regime for decades. And this is the closest we had to “just” war in real life.

    I’m no pacifist. I understand that as long as there are guys who want me and my fellows dead just because we are what we are, we’re gonna need standing armies. And, if day come when some army gorged on homicidal ideology come knocking on my doors, I’m ready to pick arms myself and try to kill my fellow sentient beings and possibly die myself. Sometimes war is plainly necessary. But it never is going to be glorious or heroic. It’s ugly, dirty business and soldiers are doing ugly, dirty job. Are they worth respect? Sure, if they are honest in what they do, they fully deserve respect, in a way that policeman or trash-collector deserve respect. But heroes?

    You want heroes, try Médecins Sans Frontières. Now, these people are badass.

  • The other side of this coin is the habit of calling the opponents in war “cowards.” When Bill Maher challenged the use of the word cowards to describe the 911 terrorists, the right went into tizzy.

  • sanford

    I saw this on the smirking chimp today. I thought it was a great column

  • Ed: You’re spot on with this post.

    #5: Marcus, you don’t know too many military folks, do you?

    I wonder what the alternative would be, in your mind? An army full of soldiers that get to decide whether or not they agree with the orders they’ve been given? Have you considered how effective such an army would be?

    Curious that you automatically label those who swore an oath “to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic” as immoral. I won’t take that personally, since such a sentiment clearly doesn’t merit being taken seriously. But it does make me wonder how many in the skeptic community share your views.

    Committing to follow orders in an inherent aspect of military success. There simply is no other formula for victory. This is why each promotion warrant begins with the clause “Know ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the fidelity and abilities of….” The idea is that the only people authorized to give order are those to whom we entrust the fidelity and abilities of.

    Is it a perfect system? Of course not. No such thing exists. It is a practical one? I suppose if you look at the history of the United States Marine Corps, you could say that it has worked well for us.

    You’re welcome, by the way. Signed, all the immoral servicemen who have supported and defended the constitution that affords you the protections you enjoy each day.

  • The other side of this coin is the habit of calling the opponents in war “cowards.”

    Ah, yes. Like the insurgents who have to rely on cowards’ weapons like IEDs. I’ve often imagined a statement from insurgents that reads something like:

    “Dear American Soldier –

    I know you call us ‘cowards’ and despise us for using whatever explosives and weapons we can assembly to hurt you in any way that we can. We do that because we cannot stand face-to-face with you and fight fairly as equals. In order to do that, we would need B-52 bombers that can pulverize mountains from so high in the sky that they cannot be seen. We would need predator drones that can see in the dark and the rain and shoot hellfire missiles out of a silent sky. We would need A-10 strike/support aircraft and laser-guided bombs. We would need helicopter gunships that can hover and fire gatling guns with accuracy over miles. We would need heavy artillery and cluster munitions. If we had these things, we’d stop being cowardly and would meet you on fair terms. In the meanwhile, since you’ve got these splendid weapons that we don’t have, that allow you to kill dozens or hundreds of us to every one soldier that you lose – WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP BEING SUCH FUCKING COWARDS?”

  • dan4

    “Why do I feel so [uncomfortable] about the word ‘hero’?…obviously, there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism:”

    So Hayes is uncomfortable about using the word, even though he admits it’s sometimes legitimately applicable? Gee, why would anyone have problems with that?

  • John Phillips, FCD

    dan4, I imagine for one, as he himself explains, because of its inappropriate blanket use. So much so that it devalues the genuinely heroic. It is also often used, as has been mentioned up thread, as a silencing tactic against criticism of war and the military. I am ex-military and I didn’t consider joining up heroic, I did volunteer after all. In fact, hearing the way the word is bandied about nowadays, especially in the US, is quite sickening and I would almost consider it an insult being called heroic just for having served of my own free will. As puppygod said up thread, want real heroes, then look at Médecins Sans Frontières and their like.

  • latecomer

    I have to agree with Hayes’ statement. The word hero is used too often when it comes to soldiers, police officers, etc. Just because you enlisted doesn’t automatically make you a hero, considering many people enlist because they’re poor and don’t have great career prospects. I have a cousin who did so for that reason. What’s ironic is that many soldiers themselves tend to downplay their heroic, saying that they were simply trying to help their fellow brother in arms, yet people will villify you if you are reluctant to call them heroes.

  • dan4

    @29: “…inappropriate blanket use.”

    What about Hayes’ inappropriate blanket aversion to the word, even when applied to people he himself believes behaved heroically (“…and obviously, there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism…”)?

  • Dennis N

    dan4, you comment at #31 doesn’t make any sense.

  • John Phillips, FCD

    dan4, but he doesn’t have an inappropriate blanket aversion to the word, for as you point out, he himself accepts there are people or actions that are genuinely heroic. His aversion is to the use of it for the run of the mill, e.g. calling someone a hero simply because they served, which is bullshit of the highest order. After all, would you label those involved in Abu Ghraib heroes, or, so as not to make you think that I am picking on just the US, similar reported actions by soldiers from my country (UK), after all, they also served.

  • anat

    An Israeli soldier who survived one of the worst battles of the Six Days War is quoted to have said (roughly, translation mine, from memory) “I don’t know why I was awarded a medal, all I wanted was to make it home in one piece”. Was he heroic or was he cowardly? Sometimes there isn’t any difference. He was in a high-risk situation and did what was needed to survive.

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  • A hero is a person who protects its country from enemy attack.Neither the US or the UK are under imminent attack.The war for oil and territory justified by alleged terrorism doesnt count as protecting the homeland.

    Not to mention that a hero doesnt get paid to do his deeds,unlike these so called “hero..*khm* mercenaries” who are entering a contract with the army for a salary…so i think their death is at most an occupational accident rather than a heroic deed.

    Driven by the greed represented by the western government, these people are fighting politicians’ and secret monopols’ wars for control and resources and it pisses me off when I see “save the heroes” sh*t on every corner trying to mask the fact that they aren’t bigger of a hero than the local electrician who dies of electrocution while trying to fix the retirement home’s switchboard.

    Strangely the likes of the latter ain’t echoes in national and worldwide media.