Are All Fallen American Soldiers Heroes?

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MSNBC's Chris Hayes spent Memorial Day getting criticized for having asked aloud whether we should apply the word "hero" to every American soldier killed in war. His concern was that this usage is "rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war."

Actually, to say Hayes was "criticized" is to make the blowback sound more cerebral than it was. Ann Coulter tweeted, "Chris Hayes 'Uncomfortable' Calling Fallen Military 'Heroes' -- Marines respond by protecting his right to menstruate." Kurt Schlicter at Breitbart.com said Hayes "sounds like one of my commie grad students trying to impress credulous freshman girls."

Hayes said he was sorry, which was no doubt a wiser course than mounting a defense of his remarks. But I think the point he was making deserves its day in court.

Before I present a (qualified) defense of it, I want to say that my father was a career army officer, so I grew up amid military culture and have true affection for it and great respect for people who make military service their career. If anything I say below seems not to reflect those attitudes, I can only say that my goal is to decrease the number of soldiers who die needlessly in the future.

To start at the pedantic end of my argument: Hayes is, in a technical sense, right. The word "hero" doesn't mean--according to any dictionary I can find--anyone who dies in a war. My threadbare 1970 Webster's, to pick the nearest handy dictionary, says a hero is someone "admired for his courage, nobility, or exploits, esp. in war." So Hayes was being true to the definition of "hero" when he said, "obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers and things like that."

I guess you could argue that for someone to choose to go to war is inherently courageous and hence heroic. But not all Americans who die in wars chose to go. During the Vietnam War--when my family bought that Webster's dictionary (while living on an army base, actually)--many soldiers were drafted. And during the Iraq War, some who died had joined the National Guard at a time when few people joining the National Guard imagined winding up in an actual war. Once the war started and they were ordered to Iraq, they were legally compelled to go.

I don't think it does our nation a service to obscure the fact that wars we start can wind up killing Americans who didn't choose to be in the middle of them. And I think using "heroes" too broadly does tend to obscure that fact.

But that's not my main concern about using the term so broadly. My main concern can be seen in the reaction to Hayes's comments by Richard DeNoyer, National Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He deplored Hayes's attitude towards "men and women who have paid the ultimate price while defending our nation."

They definitely paid the ultimate price, and they paid it in the line of patriotic duty, but I wouldn't say they were necessarily "defending our nation." I don't think the invasion of Iraq furthered the defense of our nation, and I don't think the Afghanistan War is at this point furthering the defense of our nation. In fact, I think our participation in that war is making our nation less secure--even if, unlike the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War was morally and legally justified when we started it.

Still, even if I disagree with DeNoyer, his remarks are internally consistent; he is right to imply a link between the broad use of the word "heroes" and the belief that these soldiers died "defending our nation." That's the way the word "heroes" works in people's minds; if you say that everyone who died in a given war is a hero you are conveying the sense--not explicitly but implicitly--that the war itself was a good cause. My concern is that convincing Americans that the war was a good cause lends rhetorical strength to those who will argue for war next time around (who tend to be the same people who argued for war the last time around, and include some of the people got most upset with Chris Hayes).

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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