Talking Honestly About Our War Dead

The endless string of mini-controversies that occupy the attention of the media usually run the gamut from stupid to extra-stupid to super-stupid. But sometimes, one comes along that is profoundly dispiriting, the kind of thing that makes you wonder whether we'll ever be able to have a real debate about anything important. I'm speaking of what happened after MSNBC host Chris Hayes had a brief on-air discussion about the use of the word "hero" to apply to every person in the military who died in war. This came in the middle of a show devoted to Memorial Day, the larger theme of which was that Americans don't fully appreciate the sacrifices made by people in the military and their families. When he raised the question of the overuse of the word "hero," Hayes was careful to say that he didn't want to disrespect the memory of any fallen soldier, but that the word sometimes made him uncomfortable, because he was concerned its repetition makes it easier justify future wars. Like everything Chris does, it was thoughtful and respectful, and the only way you could be offended was if you both took the remark out of context and then intentionally tried to mislead people about what he had and hadn't said.

You can guess what happened next. As Conor Friedersdorf does an excellent job of explaining, a bunch of conservatives went on a tear of phony outrage, making sure to offer the most inflammatory and dishonest baloney they could, complete with plenty of made-up crap about what Chris Hayes "believes" and "thinks," based not on his actual words but on their own venomous caricatures of the awfulness that surely must lie in every liberal's heart. I'm not going to waste any time refuting them, first because Conor took care of it already, and second because those critics have revealed themselves to be so despicable they aren't worth any more of your time.

But what is worth our time is attempting, even in the face of what happened to Chris (he eventually felt compelled to issue an apology), to do some thinking about how we talk about the people who fight in the wars our political leaders initiate. This is very difficult to do, not only because, as this episode shows, doing so inevitably gets all kinds of mindless hatred sent your way, but also because it's hard to be honest without running the risk of hurting the feelings of those for whom you have respect, namely the people who serve in the military and their families.

Let me give an example to demonstrate what I mean. If one of my children died in a war, I'm sure it would matter a great deal to me to know that the cause they were serving was a noble one, and that the manner of their death was noble, too. I could be wrong about this, since I don't know from experience—perhaps the unfathomable pain of losing that child would be so great that the circumstances of his or her death would be irrelevant—but I doubt it. To know that your loved one died in a war that should never have started, or died not in a heroic action that had a positive impact on others but in some random piece of bad luck (like a roadside bomb) or, even worse, something avoidable like the bad decision of an officer, would probably make it even more painful. Nobody wants to think their loved one "died in vain," meaning that nothing positive came out of their death.

So if we don't want to worsen the pain of those thousands of families, it's much easier to just say that their sons and daughters were all "heroes" no matter what they did or how they died, and the conflict to which they were sent was one in which they were defending our country and safeguarding freedom.

But what if that isn't really true? What if the conflict in which they died was a gigantic, tragic mistake? And what if that conflict had nothing to do with defending the United States? What if no matter how well they did their job or how hard they tried, nothing they did in that conflict could have advanced the cause of "freedom" one bit? What if you believe those men and women did "die in vain," that their deaths didn't make their country or the world safer, but were just unadulterated tragedies, producing nothing but pain and loss? What do you say then?

I think the answer is that you have no choice but to be willing to separate how you talk about our wars from what you'd say if you were talking to the parent of a fallen soldier. If you met a woman whose son died in Iraq, of course you wouldn't take the opportunity to let her know your opinion that the war was the dumbest thing America did in the last half-century. That would be needlessly cruel. But once you're engaged in democratic debate, you have to be able to say things that make us uncomfortable. And if if people didn't agree with Chris Hayes' thoughts on the use of the word "hero," then they should have explained why it is that they believe serving in the armed forces automatically makes one a hero. Maybe they would have been persuasive and maybe they wouldn't have, but instead they chose invective.

It seems that what many conservatives want is for our public discussion of issues of war to be undertaken as though we were all speaking to the mother of a soldier who had just been killed. If we don't say that every death was more triumph than tragedy, that everyone who served was a hero, and that every sacrifice made us safer and protected our freedom, then we'd better just shut our mouths. Unfortunately, that's how much of our debate goes.

One final note: One of the criticisms that was made of Chris Hayes was that he shouldn't have brought up this subject on Memorial Day, when we're supposed to be honoring our war dead. Well that's exactly when we ought to be raising these questions. As Chris explained as such length, most of the time we don't think about those who are serving at all. So on those rare occasions when we do, we need to be as honest as we can, so perhaps we won't keep adding so many names to those memorials.

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