Are All Fallen American Soldiers Heroes?


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 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).

To put this in concrete terms: To say that everyone who died in the Iraq war is a hero is, in an admittedly small but not trivial way, to make it more likely that we'll wind up in a war with Iran. And I think I can safely say that some soldiers who died in Iraq would not consider war with Iran a good thing. To talk about their deaths in a way that increases the chances of such a war is arguably to dishonor them.

Yesterday Gen. John Allen, at a Memorial Day service in Afghanistan, referred to slain soldiers as "heroes" and said they had died defending our freedom. Actually, I think our presence in Afghanistan has reduced our freedom. It has been grist for the mill of terrorist recruiters, and the more salient the threat of terrorism, including home-grown terrorism, the more our government infringes on our civil liberties.

But, leaving aside my disagreement with Allen over that factual matter, I have to say that, like DeNoyer, he is conveying an internally consistent message; his broad use of the word "hero" is organically linked to his claim that the Afghanistan War has been good for America.

Those of us who think that recent wars haven't been good for America may of course be wrong about that. And whether we are or not, you may of course disagree. But at least consider the possibility that, when we ask whether every fallen American soldier should be called a hero, it really is because, like you, we want those soldiers not to have died in vain.

Revising our use of the word "hero" isn't some crusade of mine--in fact, I'd never even thought about it until the firestorm over Hayes's remarks broke out. Given how little time has passed since then, I can't claim to have a firmly settled conviction about the matter. My main point is that the idea he put forth is a serious one, and the respectful treatment of serious ideas is one thing that is supposed to characterize the kind of democracy that's worth fighting for.

[Notes: (1) The picture above is detail from a flag that was left behind by my father, a legacy of one of his many stateside assignments after he served in World War II. It is draped on a bookcase in my office--and, even though I've written a number of anti-war screeds in that office, it isn't meant ironically. It's there because I think he'd approve of some of those screeds (though he was certainly no lefty), and because I think the ultimate purpose of his army career dovetails with the ultimate purpose of the screeds. The closest thing to a tribute to his army career I've ever written is this 2007 New York Times column, which I also linked to above. (2) After uploading this piece, but before clicking "publish," I caught wind on Twitter of Conor Friedersdorf's defense of Chris Hayes, also on this site. I decided not to read it before clicking "publish," but I'll read it now, and I'm sure it's worth your attention, too. I hope Conor didn't beat me to every point I've made here, though I wouldn't put it past him. (3) [Added 6/2] An earlier version of this piece included the sentence "And during the Iraq War, some who died had joined the National Guard--not the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines--at a time when few people joining the National Guard imagined winding up in an actual war." Kurt Schlicter pointed out that the National Guard is technically part of either the Army or Air Force, so I deleted the part between the m-dashes. But my original point holds: Many people joining the National Guard didn't anticipate combat.]