Reflecting on this video, from MSNBC’s “Up w/Chris Hayes,” Mark Finkelstein writes:
[W]hat does it say about the liberal chattering class, which Hayes epitomizes, that it chokes on calling America’s fallen what they rightly and surely are: heroes? Watch the hesitant Hayes in what almost seems a parody of the conflicted intellectual.
Hayes and Finkelstein both have a problem when it comes to thinking about heroism, but Finkelstein’s is so egregious that it makes Hayes’ seem to disappear. For Finkelstein, every soldier is a hero because he’s intellectually paralyzed by his
patroitism jingoism. Never mind that a whole lot of soldiers don’t actually act heroically once they’ve enlisted (or that some actually act villanously). So long as they’re in an American uniform, they must be heroes to Finkelstein. And so long as Americans are fighting, it must be a just war.
For Hayes, we should be wary of celebrating our soldiers because war is terrible. On this understanding, celebrating the solider in any way seems to end up supporting violence; Hayes is uncomfortable “about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.” For Finkelstein, this makes Hayes the very definition of “Effete: affected, overrefined, and ineffectual.”
Hayes, however, isn’t exactly the caricature that Finkelstein so desperately wants him to be. As the Huffington Post piece on this “hero controversy” points out:
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.
I wrote about this back in March, critiquing Stephen Marche’s Esquire piece, “State of the American Hero”:
What he’s saying is that it was never heroic simply to serve, even when everyone was doing it. It was just doing one’s duty. But what he neglects to mention is that it used to be compulsory; we didn’t have the option not to do our duty. Now, of course, one chooses to enlist, one makes the active assertion that military service is one’s duty. And that’s what opens up the opportunity for heroism. Because enlisting is optional, one must actively choose to make sacrifices, to put oneself in harm’s way. Without the choice to stay home, it’s much more difficult to make the case that there is a measure of heroism simply in someone’s service in the armed forces. But since it’s not necessary, and since the rewards often seem not to outweigh the risks, it makes sense to me to praise those who enlist.
Military service — and death in action, which was the subject of Hayes’ show on Memorial Day weekend — isn’t necessarily heroic. But it can be. And here’s Hayes’ problem: It’s not necessarily the case that calling someone a hero means lending full-throated support to the war in which the person acted heroically, nor is it necessarily the case that admitting that military service opens up a space for heroism lends rhetorical justification for any further wars. It’s possible to fight valiantly for a bad cause, just as it’s possible to act badly in pursuit of a just cause. And, most importantly, it’s possible to understand the value (and even the virtue) of military service without supporting particular military engagements; it’s not necessary to shy away from saying that something heroic is, in fact, heroic simply because you wish the context in which it occured hadn’t existed in the first place.
HT: Michael Tofias and Matt Langdon.
Also of note: In a recent episode of The Hero Report podcast, Matt Langdon and I spent a good deal of time discussing the issue of military heroism, asking whether all soldiers should be considered heroes, and tackling some of the claims and counterclaims.