Heroism Reconsidered

Over the weekend, MSNBC host Chris Hayes, became the subject of controversy after making the following statement in a roundtable discussion about the meaning of Memorial Day:

Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word ‘hero’? I feel uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, 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.

In American society, the idea that military war veterans are heroes, particularly those who lost their lives in battle, is sacrosanct. Thus, Hayes’ open and honest contemplation of this principle has been treated with contempt and hostility in the mainstream media, unfairly in my opinion. Hayes was clearly not demeaning or attacking soldiers in the Armed Forces. Instead he was raising the question of whether or not “hero” is the appropriate word to use for those who serve in the military and, by contrast, whether that word could be used in any other context.

If Hayes’ critics watched the entire discussion, they would have seen a thoughtful, nuanced discussion about the implications de facto use of “hero” in describing military service has on public understanding of the term “heroic” and conversations about war in general and the American endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. Can anything that does not involve risking at some level one’s own life be considered heroic anymore? Does assigning the value of hero to the individual actors in a war automatically confer honor to the actual cause of the war being fought? Is it legitimate to ask whether or not the death of a soldier in combat is worth the loss to the t, community, and nation to which that soldier is a part?

This is a worthwhile discussion to have and I appreciate Hayes’ attempt to jumpstart a conversation. I even appreciate his willingness to engage with those who took issue with what he said about American soldiers who have perished in battle. He did not say that we should not regard them as heroes, in fact he is the one who brought up the counterpoint argument that there is something noble and honorable about willingly placing oneself in harm’s way for the sake of one’s country, even giving up the right of self-determination to do so.

The post-outrage conversations in the blogosphere have been fruitful. I am especially excited that conservative bloggers have defended the very liberal Hayes for this discussion. Perhaps we can learn something from each other after all.

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