MSNBC’s Chris Hayes sparked controversy and debate on Sunday when he said that he felt “uncomfortable” calling soldiers killed in action “heroes” because the term can be used to justify potentially unjust wars. He later apologized for the statement. (See apology below.)
Hayes spent a large portion of his Memorial Day-themed show on questions of war and of the people killed on all sides of military conflicts, from American soldiers to Afghan civilians.
After speaking with a former Marine whose job it was to notify families of the death of soldiers, he turned to his panel and, clearly wrestling with what to say, raised the issue of language:
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.
Hayes’ fellow panelists expressed similar discomfort. Linguist and columnist John McWhorter said that he would “almost rather not say ‘hero” and called the term “manipulative,” even if it was unintentionally so.
Hayes then said that, on the flip side, it could be seen as “noble” to join the military. “This is voluntary,” he said, adding that, though a “liberal caricature” like himself would not understand “submitting so totally to what the electorate or people in power are going to decide about using your body,” he saw valor in it.
The Nation’s Liliana Segura then chimed in, saying that “hero” is often used to paint wars in a “righteous” way.
“These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … aren’t righteous wars,” she said. “We can’t be so afraid of criticizing a policy.”
Hayes’ words caused a predictable furor with some. One Twitter user said that he was “uncomfortable with calling you an American.”
Others, though, supported Hayes. “Questioning-rather than bolstering-orthodoxies is inherently controversial,” blogger Glenn Greenwald tweeted. “That’s what makes Chris Hayes’ show so rare for TV-& so valuable.”
UPDATE: Chris Hayes issued a statement on Monday apologizing for his comments:
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
We live in a culture in which someone like Hayes cannot suggest, even the most diffident, nuanced, and self-deprecating way, that automatically labeling every American soldier who dies in war a “hero” might be an oversimplification of a difficult set of moral and political questions without thereby releasing such a storm of indignation that he is forced to immediately recant such a terrible heresy.
When it comes to war and peace nothing less than full-throated stupidity is acceptable in our public discourse, and any sign of ambivalence regarding the righteousness of the various causes for which around 1.34 million American soldiers have died is to be stamped out as an offense to the memory of the honored dead. (This view produces some logical problems in the context of America’s bloodiest war, but logic is never an impediment to pseudo-patriotic fervor).
Note too the perniciousness of the idea that Hayes’ civilian status is assumed even by himself — or at least his contrite persona –to disqualify him from having a valid opinion on such matters — a disqualification that obviously doesn’t apply to the armies of chicken hawk pundits who deploy their keyboards to celebrate whatever foreign adventure they and their masters have deemed worth the cost of someone else’s life.
One of the most horrible feature of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.
Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
Update: This comment sums up what’s wrong with the backlash to Hayes’ unexceptionable observations perfectly:
While Memorial Day comes to us through an interesting mix of folk mourning practices, it is, like Thanksgiving, a holiday that encourages a kind of thinly cloaked national religion. I question whether making a public ritual around an intensely private act and set of feelings (mourning) is a good thing. One of the many violences of war is the loss of individual identity among the fighting and the silencing of debate; as a holiday, Memorial Day, which asks us to mourn heroic, reluctant, unlucky, ambivalent, peace-loving, honorable, and despicable people on the same day is that it throws our military dead into one mass grave and ask us all to drop flowers and shed a tear there. It is, as I see it, a holiday that perpetuates some of the worst lies of the state used to justify war. While I am not a pacifist, I am aggressively opposed to any state, legal, or cultural attempts to normalize or validate war. We should always look at acts of war with skepticism and doubt and unease. Bullshit terms like “our heroes” are naked propaganda terms designed to promote the idea that those who kill and die for the state deserve special reverence.