On the Alex Bennett radio program this morning, its eponymic host discussed the weekend’s latest “pants on fire” controversy, this one involving MSNBC talk show host Chris Hayes.
Hayes is a brilliant young man, editor of The Nation, and as progressive as they come. He stuck his neck out with comments on his program on Sunday when he discussed the concept of heroism in the context of today’s wars:
"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."
(As an aside, when was the last time you heard a Fox “News” commentator use a turn of phrase as delightful as “rhetorically proximate”?)
During the weekend of barbecues and parades in commemoration of those who died in our endless wars, it was refreshing to read about a dose of reality. On Bennett’s show, he made the distinction between “heroes” and “victims.” Bennett got it right, too.
No doubt, there are real heroes in the war zone. Men and women who charge up hills to protect their comrades. Pilots who fly into areas defended by surface-to-air missiles to provide air cover for ground troops. Regardless of what you think about the justification for the war, these people are heroes, and some of them will come home in coffins.
But, as Bennett points out, some of those who make that trip to Dover Air Force Base in a box are better described as “victims.” The kid who enlisted in the army because it was an employer of last resort in today’s shitty economy and was unfortunate enough to step on a land mine is a victim. The teenager who joined the Army to get training because she couldn’t afford college and was killed by a sniper attack was a victim.
Whether they were heroes or victims, Memorial Day is a good opportunity to celebrate their lives. Hayes’ comments did nothing to denigrate their service. His comments correctly asserted that the overuse of the word “hero” tends to justify and glorify the tragedies of war. How many abused teenagers from urban areas decide to enlist based on an otherwise unachievable steady job and the chance to be a “hero” overseas instead of a victim at home?
Hayes’ own profession has had a number of heroes. Edward R. Murrow dared to stand up to the demagoguery of a United States Senator, and was criticized for his accurate but disturbing report on the state of prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp. More recently, Marie Colvin was a journalist who gave her life reporting on the turmoil in Syria. By speaking an inconvenient truth, Hayes joined this cadre of journalist-heroes, but unfortunately he kept this status for less than 24 hours.
The day after his pronouncement, Hayes succumbed to pressure from his corporate masters and recanted his remarks. His rationale looks like it was written by the Comcast PR department:
“[I]n seeking to discuss the civilian-military divide and the social distance between those who fight and those who don't, I ended up reinforcing it, conforming to a stereotype of a removed pundit whose views are not anchored in the very real and very wrenching experience of this long decade of war.”
Instead of educating the American public about the glorification of war, Hayes said that because neither he nor anyone in his family is in the military, he’s unqualified to comment. If that’s the criterion, then neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney should be commenting about the war.
There are genuine heroes who have served this country in uniform. I’m fortunate enough to know one of them, William Brown, an ex-Navy SEAL who went through the Navy’s grueling training regimen not once, but twice. I don’t know what Brown did in Afghanistan and Iraq – that’s classified information – but I admire him for fighting the war against insurgents the way such a war should be fought, by covert actions rather than by massive bombings that produce collateral damage and anti-American feelings. Yet, Brown, a true American hero, was called an “idiot” by Chris Christie.
Not all heroes are in the military. My friend Marie Corfield is a hero. A teacher and single mom, Corfield is a devout supporter of public education and is sticking her neck out by getting involved in the political process as a Democrat running for State Assembly in a predominantly Republican district. She doesn’t need to do this, but she does out of concern for the children of New Jersey. Yet, Corfield, a true American hero, was denigrated by Chris Christie.
Heroism spans many generations. Seventy-seven year old State Senator Loretta Weinberg is a hero. While she could be spending a comfortable retirement with her grandchildren, she chooses to serve the citizens of New Jersey as Senate Majority Leader – a progressive Democrat who is working effectively with the more conservative power brokers in her party while not giving up on her principles. Yet, Weinberg, a true American hero, was the target of Chris Christie’s wrath when the governor urged the press to “take a bat” to her.
The moral of this story is that you don’t have to be in the military to be a hero. You don’t even have to be on Governor Christie’s shit list. We have American heroes surrounding us – from the single mother in Camden who works two jobs while trying to keep her kids out of trouble; to the public sector union workers who accede to pay and benefit cuts so that they and their colleagues can continue to serve the taxpayers; to the soldiers and marines who are maimed physically and mentally and are then all but forgotten by a GOP-controlled Congress.
Let’s observe Memorial Day for the heroes and victims of our wars. And let’s recognize the other heroes in our midst as well.
Disclosure: I am proudly working on Marie Corfield’s campaign because she is a hero.