May 29, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you die in uniform, are you automatically a hero? 

On Memorial Day, the day for honoring our war dead, MSNBC newsman Chris Hayes said he had reservations about the way the word hero gets tossed around.  Some soldiers, he said, die in circumstances of  “tremendous heroism.”  But that implied that other soldiers deaths are not quite as heroic and that not all dead military personnel are heroes. 

Hayese also questioned the whole enterprise of hero-making.
I feel uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.
As you would expect, the right wing swung into full battle vituperation, with the usual name calling – commie, collectivist, intellectual, effete – that tells us more about the fears of the name-callers than it does about Hayes.  (Politico has a summary of the reaction.)

Above all, the critics insisted that the military dead were, ipso facto, heroes.

Whether all are heroes comes down to definitions, and apparently some people’s definition of hero includes all dead soldiers.  More important is Hayes’s discomfort at the motives and the effect of all this hero-mongering: “justification for more war.” It’s sometimes called “waving the bloody shirt.” 

A way to think about this is to imagine other nations or groups doing something similar.  Imagine Al Qaeda, for example, having hero ceremonies for their own dead, saying what heroes all these dead Al Qaeda are and how wonderful and worthwhile their sacrifice.   Might we suspect that the motive behind these sentiments was to stir their followers to further acts of war? 

Imagine a Pakistani newsman saying that this waving of the bloody headscarf, despite the honorable motive of honoring the dead,  seemed to encourage even more war, more killing, and more death.  Would we think maybe he had a point?  Or would we say, “How dare he suggest that some of these fallen Al Qaeda were not heroes?” and then dismiss him as cowardly, effeminate, and disloyal?


PCM said...

In my mind, a hero has to choose to put him or herself in a potentially life-threatening (or life-ruining) situation. And do if for the good of others. And finally, also do it for a good cause. Of course it's the last part that is always most open for debate.

Just because you die as a cop or soldier doesn't automatically make you a "hero." But it's still good to be remembered for giving your life in the line-of-duty.

But if you choose to run into a burning building or a hail of bullets when you could simply choose not do so? Then you're a hero.

And a cop who chooses to run into a burning building or a firefighters who run into a hail of bullets? Automatically a hero. Because that is not part of the job description.

Jay Livingston said...

Peter, a few random thoughts:

1. If two combat soldiers are doing essentially the same thing, and one of them gets killed, how many heroes are there? I would think that the heroism is in the deed, not the death.

2. Does signing up for the army or the police force make you more heroic than people who chose other occupations? Does it make you more heroic than draft dodgers like Dick Cheney? Probably, but that’s not the same thing as being a hero. And motivation may be important. Is the person who signs on because he wants to further a good cause more heroic than the one who joins because that’s what the men in his family have always done or because it seems like the best job he can get?

3. Speaking of motives, the people who run into burning building or go up against the hail of bullets never attribute their actions to personal qualities like bravery or heroism. They say things like, “I had to, I couldn’t let my unit get wiped out” or “Anybody would have done the same,” or “That’s what we’re trained to do,” or “It’s part of the job,” and so on. And it’s not just false modesty. It’s what they really think.

PCM said...

I agree the heroism is in the deed. You don't have to die to be a hero. But I do think you need to place yourself in danger.

You might be trained to do something, but everybody doesn't do it. The fact that some may really think "anybody would have done the same" is perhaps one sign of a hero.

When the shit hits the fan, everybody does *not* act heroically. Some freeze. Others run. Perhaps heroes need to be modest. Otherwise you're just a adrenaline-junky self-aggrandizing lucky bastard!