On Calling All Soldiers ‘Heroes’

There are few things in public discourse more contentious than daring to engage in discussions beyond the pre-approved talking points. Educated society has established spoken and unspoken rules of decorum outlining tasteful ways to approach heavy topics. Arguably, no realm of American life has a more established set of such talking points than the military. For good reason. As civilians, conceptualizing the realities of a military life is nearly impossible. But our unwillingness to engage all aspects of American life in thoughtful commentary has unforeseen consequences on ourselves, especially in our relationship the military.

MSNBC host and writer Christopher Hayes, in the context of his Memorial Day show, revisited a common theme of his show: the ramifications of the language used to describe military life.

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. I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, 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.

Hayes’ candor opened up massive criticism from the political spectrum. Ann Coulter tweeted, “Chris Hayes ‘Uncomfortable’ Calling Fallen Military ‘Heroes’ – Marines respond by protecting his right to menstruate.” Others joined in. He has since apologized.

I wish he hadn’t. His point was a good one. The language we’ve adopted to understand the military existence is highly problematic. It regulates the military’s existence in purely emotional terms that ignore the role we play in shaping that existence and the consequences when we don’t.

Americanism heavily draws its understanding of the military from Christianity. The same spirit in the New Testament that demand believers “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service,” is used to understand our military. The martyr, like dead soldier, is the highest form of participant. For their commitment, they gave the ultimate price. For Christians, this is sacred. It is envied.

Phrases we commonly use to understand the motivations and values of military work, such as “sacrifice,” “duty,” “service,” “calling,” all derive from a religious context. This is a problem. This language suggests that being in the military is a reward unto itself. More importantly, it ignores the role that non-military persons play in the taking of those lives. The stakes are too high for emotionally-driven posturing.

“Hero” is a word that originated in fiction. It does not reflect real life. It is defined exclusively by our collective imaginations. We find heroes at Yankees Stadium, in Disney cartoons, or in the classics section of Barnes and Noble. In these instances, the choice to use this word is equally valid because it is as equally meaningless. Which is not to say “hero” is never an appropriate word to use to understand events we encounter. But using mythological language to conceptualize the military is a convenient crutch from understanding the real consequences our relationship with the military has on soldiers, their families, and our society.

It’s easier to look at the responders of 9/11 as “heroes” than it is to strategize tangible tactics to protect them from the consequences of the work they did. It’s easier to look at teachers as “heroes” than it is to understand the dynamics of the classroom. In each scenario, the title of “hero” implies that the choice to enter those professions is, again, a reward unto itself; not a profession that actively involves our physical and emotional participation.

Every death of a soldier is the result of choices: the choices of the soldier, the government and civilians. If your only conclusion when contemplating the sum of those choices is noting the creation of another “hero,” we ought to feel more than discomfort. We ought to condemn such irresponsibility. The choices we make dictate the futures of actual men and women.

Tragically, the choices we’ve made make it so that some never had a chance to be a “hero.” They operate in real life; not fantasy. Therefore, it is our responsibility to understand their reality using language that most accurately reflects that reality. TC mark

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  • http://www.facebook.com/brianmay Brian Gregory May

    he·ro/ˈhi(ə)rō/
    Noun:A person, typically a man, who is admired for courage or noble qualities.

    • Tori

      I’m fairly certain that this piece speaks toward the implied
      connotations of the word “hero”– the conceptual definition, not just
      the Merriam-Webster one– and the emotions/rationalizations we attach to
      it.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/Commander_Co0l Tony F.

      that doesn’t mean every soldier automatically, especially in the case of war crimes of offenses close to that

  • Nishant

    “Every death of a soldier is the result of choices: the choices of the soldier, the government and civilians. If your only conclusion when contemplating the sum of those choices is noting the creation of another “hero,” we ought to feel more than discomfort.”

    Wow. That is absolutely brilliant. *applauds* This was a very dangerous subject to broach, but you’ve ‘begun’ it well. I say ‘begun’ because this can’t have been the end to your train of thought. I would really like to hear you expand on it.

    Really, really awesome.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kosticr Robert Koštić II

      Totally agree.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=716903319 Racquel Balaoas

    I just got home from a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan, and to be honest, soldiers are not really heroes. But we have seen the world how heroes have seen it. Believe me, we have bigger problems than the “problem” you found.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jparker2 Josh Parker

      Truth

  • Elliott

    This is great. I too would like to hear more.

  • turnpike

    great piece, well said

  • http://twitter.com/BaconTFM BaconTFM

    You kinda lost me with the Christianity stuff. I don’t think the need for declaring all these people heroes comes from religion. It’s less about our country’s (and especially the right’s) penchant for relating things back to God as much as it is an extreme reaction to the mostly unnecessary and downright despicable vilification of soldiers returning from Vietnam.  

    • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

      I think we all can think of societies that featured a definite intertwining of their religious atmosphere and their perception of their military. I don’t think that is a phenomenon exclusive to the United States. So I think it is worthwhile to consider that relationship anywhere. For example, I would hypothesize that there are strong parallels between how a religion views a woman’s role in society and how an army might view a woman’s role in it. This relation exists because the motivations behind each institution derive from similar emotional places. Both institutions therefore tend to be operated in a similar way. 

      In this article, I tried to point out religious thought and military thought are agreed. The people that give up the most are to be celebrated the most. Which is not bad. It just often dismisses the role we played in that sacrifice. 

      Here in New York, it’s always cool to see Fleet Week officers taking pictures and roaming around mingling with civilians. In our interactions with these men and woman  though, I wish we had a phrase similar, like “thank you for your service”, but one that captured a feeling of, “Thank you for the commitment you’ve made to me. I affirm my commitment to you.” 

  • Sagar

    Kudos! and Brah-vo! Incredibly well-written piece, one of the finest i’ve read in TC yet. 

    If you look at the larger value of reaching a global society without war, we must begin by changing our thoughts, and to change our thoughts is to change the tools we use to shape those thoughts. It starts with words. Words have power.
    On another point, Mr. Hayes shouldn’t have apologized at the sheer nonsense value of the comment by Ms. Coulter. 

  • Killtrend

    Hero: anyone who puts the lives of others above their own.

    Use it in any context you want, any means of aelf sacrifice life threatening or otherwise, but it’s the same.

    • http://nonegenuine.blogspot.com/ Scott

      so i bought a bought a beer for my friend at the bar tonight.  call me what you will.

  • http://twitter.com/mojzo Jeff Mojzer

    ‘Victim’ seems like a better term.

  • Kavita Das

    I’m a big fan of Chris Hayes for his work dispassionately dissecting issues. However, he mis-stepped as did the author of this piece. If you want to take on war policies, go for it. If you want to take on the military industrial complex, be my guest. They both need further examination. However, I don’t think it’s fair to denigrate those HEROES who have lost their lives fighting wars sanctioned by our own country’s government. The Occupy Movement drove home the point  that only 1% of this country owns much of the wealth and wealth creating mechanisms. But only 1% is bearing the burden of this war with some soldiers having multiple deployments. So just to be clear, not only is the author (and Chris Hayes) wrong about the fact that our fallen soldiers are HEROES but I would say that their families are also HEROES for their shared sacrifice.

  • Myah Williams

    “Every death of a soldier is the result of choices:”… so because it’s their choice, if they so happen to die in the line of duty, this disqualifies them from being considered a “hero”.  I’m a very liberal person, but I won’t deny the fact that if there were no military, a lot of the freedoms and luxuries we daily take for granted would be nonexistent.  I think your perspective is too high minded and faulty here… 

    • M.-K.

      I understand what you are saying, but I doubt the author was trying to disqualify fallen soldiers from holding the title of “hero” simply because going to war was a choice they made. I think the intent of this was to point out that not all soldiers are heroes simply by definition- as it is so often taken for granted- but rather that the title of “hero” is something to be earned, in terms of a feat or an accomplishment, and not to be automatically attributed to all those who happen to be soldiers (same goes for everyone else outside of the military.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ZzzzeNnnn Zen Hwang

    There are heroes, but there are also mercenaries in the army. There’s nothing preventing a non-hero from volunteering, and there’s also nothing preventing someone unheroic from doing unheroic deeds while in military service. Also, heroes can apply outside of war also, so to use the word the way it’s being used today in the news media is to alter its meaning. 

  • http://twitter.com/nolan3391 Nolan Young

    I think you made some really good points here. The term ‘hero’ is constantly used as a crutch to depersonalize the tragedy of war. It perpetuates the falsity that there is glory in war. Read All Quiet on the Western Front or watch Saving Private Ryan. War is a breakdown of diplomacy between the aristocracies of two nations, nothing more. Young men and women die of lower classes die in the name of nationalism and all that comes with it. That is not to say that war is unnecessary, that would be unbelievably naive. It is a necessary evil to protect our freedoms, but our government is all too often trigger happy. Fighting the Nazi’s and the Japanese Empire in WWII? Of course. Everything since then? Not so much … 

  • Mary

    I wanna fucking punch you

    • http://nonegenuine.blogspot.com/ Scott

      I wanna fucking fart you

    • Koba Chan

      Use WORDS like an adult. You’re allowed to disagree, but to threaten an author with a differing opinion from yours with physical violence just makes you look incredibly ignorant and stupid. 

  • Katie Anselmo

    You’re telling me that a man or woman who puts their lives aside to protect the core values of this nation isn’t doing something absolutely heroic? Because if that’s the point you’re going with, you are positively ignorant.

    • Guest

      No, his point is that simply calling soldiers heroes is a cop out. I envy the sort of character it takes to make that kind of commitment, and I don’t think the author would disagree. But for the Hell that is war, a title and some pathos-laden pictures posted on Facebook are a pretty shitty thank you, especially when the rhetoric has the potential to justify more war.

      • Nishant

        “… especially when the rhetoric has the potential to justify more war.” EXACTLY!

    • Koba Chan

      I think you completely missed the point.

  • Guest

    The most troubling aspect, in my opinion, is the portrayal of the military as the great moral calling (don’t freak out, more on that later). I don’t mean that statement as a slight towards any military men or woman, but instead speak it towards our culture in general. I believe there is great honor in service, both in combat and non-combat roles. I think the commitment required to volunteer speaks volumes about one’s character, and I am truly thankful for those who are willing to risk their lives in combat. And I don’t believe that military service is of a lower moral calling than anything – that is, being a soldier or fighting in war isn’t ethically wrong. But I’m saddened to see lives thrown away over failed diplomacy and in a show of strength, which is why I think it’s worth putting our pride and feelings aside to have this discussion.

    When I say the military is not the great moral call of Americans, I really speak in reference to the self affirmed belief that America is the modern day Israel. Allusions to being God’s chosen people are prevalent throughout the political and religious arenas. It’s a dangerous logic to follow, as belief in the divine guidance of our foreign policy allows us to ignore any ethical questions that may arise.

    So maybe, instead of pretending our soldiers are defending God’s country from evil, we should recognize that they are only human. Our men and women in the military are just that – men and woman, who love and scare and cry and hope and do everything that makes us fundamentally human. And if we remember that our military is composed of family members and friends and lovers, then maybe we can honor our servicemen and women by not sending them to war.

  • LT

    I am currently a First Lieutenant serving on active duty with the Army and, to be honest, I think this article makes a valuable point. 

    While I disagree with drawing on religion as a source for American zeal for overuse of the word hero, indeed, I think the core of the issue lies with the fact that many, if not most, Americans, are wholly unfamiliar with military service or what it entails. Most civilians are completely unaware that the vast majority of jobs in the military have little (if anything) to do with combat and even the combat roles are filled with mundane, ordinary and wholly unheroic activities 99.999% of the time. Even in combat. As a result of this ignorance, American’s toss about words like “hero” with a tone that feels more obligated and insincere then anything else. I, myself, have served for two years on active duty with a Combat Arms unit and been forward deployed along the DMZ in Korea for the last year and nothing about my service is remotely “heroic.” 

    In the end, it’s overuse only leads to the diminishment of the value of the expression. There are real heroes out there walking amongst us… men like Salvatore Giunta, Dakota Meyer, Leroy Petry. Those men deserve that word. It’s use for every Joe that has put on the uniform and dutifully carried out his job day to day, especially by the media, almost has a pathetic feeling sense of pandering to it and cheapens a word that shouldn’t be cheapened. 

    • Nishant

      I agree with what you’re saying. To add to your (and the author’s) thought, is the overuse of the word ‘hero’ not another way of painting the ‘other side’ as villains? 

      If a story has a hero, it has a villain on the other end, and maybe this word is being thrown around purposefully, to paint a black and white picture of a very, very complex issue which requires our active thought and reasoning.

      None of what I say is meant to take away from your efforts and contribution, however. Respect.

  • MPR

    Thank you for writing about something meaningful on TC. While other authors used the spare time  provided to them this past weekend by the fallen, to draft pieces about reality television or online creeping, you chose to write about something meaningful.  I think that you would change your mind somewhat if you knew a little more about the enemy’s we are fighting here (Afghanistan), I respect your opinion and am grateful that you took the time to formulate one on the subject.

  • noah t

    excellent piece.  i have always harbored similar feelings and never knew how to articulate them.  the word hero is thrown around too much.  of course soldiers can, and often are, heroes.  but the soldiers who gunned down civilians in iraq in that infamous leaked video were not heroes.

    soldiers must follow orders, regardless of how they feel about executing them.  this is an unfortunate, but necessary quality of an effective military.  bradley manning, the soldier who was involved with the wikileaks scandal, to me, is a hero.  he acted independently for what he (and I) believe is a just cause.  this was extremely brave and he has surely suffered more than the consequences.

    i feel like a lot of the people commenting disagreeing with the author are assuming that he’s saying no soldiers are heroes.  he’s just saying that, for example, if a soldier dies due to a poorly planned and executed mission, his commander can call him a hero and say that he died on the line of duty, defending his country and its freedoms.  No, he died because his commander wasn’t thorough enough.  calling him a hero can be a way to shift blame from a responsible party to shed the blame.  i thought the 9/11 firefighter and police example was an excellent example of that. 

  • John Tinkelenberg

    I do not mind calling all soldiers “heroes” especially now that our military is comprised entirely of volunteers. It would be disrespectful of me to do otherwise. I have not yet offered to give my life to serve something greater than myself, so who am I to judge?

    Is hero a subjective term? Certainly, but so are many other things: insurgent, freedom, duty.

    I’d much rather fit in my community than seem an iconoclast by arguing semantics. I don’t know what purpose that has. It undoubtedly doesn’t help the families of the fallen grieve, which I think is the more immediate consequence. We will always have war as long as cultures have competing interests.

    • NC

      I hear you but what of combat soldiers who battle everyday with what they’ve seen and done, have you ever thought that they might not all be proud of what they were called upon to do? Have you ever thought that maybe automatically labeling them might not feel right to a soldier who is coming to grips with what they’ve experienced?

      Not considering all soldiers to be heroes is not at all disrespectful, not all soldiers fight in wars, you can respect soldiers as much as you might respect your closest friend but like your friend you might not consider them all heros.

  • JayKay

    Was anyone taken aback by Coulter’s response?  Referring to menstruation as a means of discrediting someone’s opinion is one of my pet peeves, and I am amazed that she, as a woman, resorted to it.  How is society supposed to take women seriously when even women contribute to the myth that we’re incapable of rational thought for 3-5 days of each month?  Ughhh it drives me crazy.

    • http://possibleperspectives.wordpress.com garrett.dee

      Keep in mind this is Ann Coulter we are talking about. She is literally a vampire who feeds on people’s IQ points and turns them into Botox.

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