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.