The Meaning of Heroism

Too often, the Right uses the “hero” label to stifle dissent.

Lindsay Beyerstein

Political consultant Frank Luntz attends the premier and panel discussion of <i>'Poliwood</i> during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival on May 1, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

In May, Christopher Hayes provoked a firestorm of right-wing wrath for stating the obvious: By equating war deaths with heroism, we run the risk of romanticizing war and chilling dissent.

Here’s what Hayes — MSNBC host, former In These Times senior editor and author of this month’s cover story — said on May 27, on his show, Up w/​ Chris Hayes:

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 … uncomfortable about the word hero” because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. 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.

The response from the Right was immediate. Richard DeNoyer, commander-in-chief of Veterans of Foreign Wars, told Fox News: Chris Hayes’ recent remarks on MSNBC regarding our fallen service members are reprehensible and disgusting.”

Conservative media commentator Dan Gainor cited Hayes’ remarks as proof of that the Left doesn’t like the military” and accused him of criticizing the troops.

The Right’s demonization of Hayes proves his point: The hero” label is a rhetorical tool to squelch criticism of U.S. wars. If every fallen soldier is a hero by default, that implies that the war itself must be a worthwhile undertaking. We don’t usually call people heroes for extraordinary efforts on behalf of unworthy causes.

The mainstream anti-war Left wants to support the troops —as human beings, as professionals and as veterans — while condemning the war they are fighting. There’s no contradiction here. 

But the Right wants to say that any criticism of the war is tantamount to disrespecting the troops. That way, people will shy away from criticizing the war for fear of being perceived as troop-haters. If the Right’s illogical position were exposed, a core ad hominem weapon in its rhetorical arsenal would be lost. That’s why Hayes was singled out. The following day, he apologized for his comment, writing on MSNBC​.com, 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.”

The concept of heroism should be open for debate. If it just means bravery, then arguably all members of the our volunteer military qualify, because they serve at some personal risk. But if that is true, what matters is service, not death. 

Semantic debates aside, the armed forces deserve our respect and gratitude for the work they do on our behalf, like all public servants. We should keep in mind that our troops don’t pick the wars they fight. As long as the troops are following legal orders issued by legitimate civilian authorities, we should respect their service even if we disapprove of the war. As Hayes initially observed, we can respect the sacrifices of fallen troops without automatically according them hero status. 

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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