Saturday, June 02, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #59 - Part 4

Thoughts on heroism

Finally for today, a few thoughts on heroism. I recorded this week's show on May 30, the traditional Memorial Day before having a three-day weekend and holiday sales became more important, so I want to quote something I post on my blog every year right about now [which is also posted here below].

In May 2002, someone on a mailing list I was on posted a message asking people to take a moment of silence on Memorial Day, saying "Let us ensure that those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom are not forgotten."

In response, I wrote: And in that silent moment remember, too, the many nonviolent warriors who struggled, searched, sacrificed, for justice and freedom, who remain without songs or memorials to celebrate their lives or their passing, but who at some moment stood weaponless against the machinery of oppression and showed in their simple “No more” a force that can move history.

With that in mind, it seems that Chris Hayes, who does a news and commentary program on MSNBC on weekend mornings, sparked some controversy on Sunday with an observation on the general topic of sacrifice and heroism. In the video, you can see that he's struggling to find the right words to say what he means.

After noting that "it is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the word 'heroes,'" he said he was "uncomfortable" with the word "hero" "because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war." He went on to say that of course there can be heroism in combat, "But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic" - problematic, that is, because the image of all soldiers killed in war as "heroes" makes it too easy to promote more wars.

And of course there was a blaze of outraged protest and of course he later issued an apology. It was, however, a sort of non-apology apology because he expressed regret for coming across as a "removed pundit" disconnected from the actual emotions of a decade of war but not for the actual sentiment. Which is good because he should not apologize for anything he said (with the possible exception of the phrase "rhetorically proximate"). Because the sentiment is true.

In fact, I said much the same thing in even stronger language four years ago. My focus there was somewhat different; I was addressing what I called the disturbing and increasing tendency among "progressives" to adulate all things military, which was happening, I argued, because the left was thinking it was a path to legitimacy on national security issues. That is, we had to prove we were as tough, as pro-military, as ready to go to war, as anybody. But knowing in advance where this would lead, and similar to Hayes' struggling with his words, the piece opened by saying
I've tried various ways to start this, wanting to make sure that I say what I mean and only what I mean. But I've come to realize that there is no way that will not be misunderstood, either accidentally or deliberately, by some. So I gave up trying to do anything other than say it outright.
A bit further in, I got to what is relevant here:
Let me be clear here: Soldiers are not "heroes." A "hero" is by definition someone who is in some way extraordinary, remarkable, worthy of emulation. It is at best a risky business to define someone as "extraordinary" simply by virtue of wearing a uniform and in fact it is potentially dangerous as it makes it too easy to slip into the militaristic attitude that what soldiers do goes beyond "necessary evil" or just necessary, beyond even honorable, to admirable, to something to celebrate, an attitude that makes it all to easy to promote additional enlistments, additional weapons, and even additional wars.
This way of thinking, I said elsewhere, "distorts our way of thinking, drops a magnet on our moral compass." War and its symbiotic partner militarism do not recognize "good" and "bad" but only life and death and, ultimately, only winner and loser and they will feed off one person's blood as readily as another.

Or, as I put it some years ago, "Every war is just when modified by the adjective 'my.'" Militarism destroys souls right along with flesh, war blows away conscience as readily as concrete.

So I will conclude here as I have concluded before with something that often is far clearer to the soldiers themselves than it is to their fawning fans, particularly those among the chickenhawks of the right, so eager for wars so long as they do not have to fight in them: Soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things. But heroes are defined by their actions in life, not the fact of their death, and the act of putting on a uniform and agreeing to put your conscience in a lockbox for the next so many years does not make your life more important than others and it does not make your death more important than others and it does not exempt you from moral judgment. It does not make you a hero.

And we should not fall prey to hero-worship.


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