I thought the first two seasons of Heroes were pretty good, but that’s not what this post is about.

I was thinking about the recent kerfuffle over the Chris Hayes comments over the weekend before Memorial Day suggesting that perhaps we shouldn’t call every fallen soldier a “hero”. The controversial bit of what Hayes said was:

It is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the word hero. Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word hero? I feel uncomfortable with the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. And I obviously don’t want to desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that has fallen. Obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is tremendous heroism. You know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers, things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that’s problematic, but maybe I’m wrong about that.

Lots of people went nuts and offered truly offensive knee-jerk condemnations of this.

Basically, I agree with Conor Friedersdorf in this article that Hayes’ comments were reasonable and respectful, in context, and that the critics were way out of line.

But, is it true or false that every fallen soldier is a hero? And, either way, is it good for us to call them heroes?

Well, if we use the definition of “One who shows great courage” then, while some fallen soldiers died in an extraordinarily courageous act, it’s difficult to understand how all those who happened to die were more courageous than those who didn’t. At what point did he become a hero? Was it just as he was impaled by some shrapnel? How did that show great courage? Perhaps volunteering to serve, knowing that your life is at risk, is courageous, but then it’s all military men and women who are heroes, not just those unlucky enough to have died.

Another definition is “One who is admired for achievements and noble qualities.” I suppose if people agree to admire fallen soldiers more than survivors then this could make them this sort of heroes. But, again, why?

I can understand feeling very sorry for the tragic loss of life, and for the hardship put on the friends and families of fallen soldiers, but that seems like a categorical difference from them having done something admirable (beyond volunteering).

It seems to me that this need to call fallen soldiers “heroes” is a cultural phenomenon that has evolved to support military service. It helps friends and families to hear their lost loved-ones called “hero”, and people transfer these warm feelings (both given and received) into further support of the military. Also, knowing that if you die you’ll be remembered as a “hero” must make it a little bit easier to volunteer and risk your life.

But, is this a good thing?

If you’re confident that your country’s military, while not necessarily perfect, is going to remain an institution that does much more good than harm, and that losses will be for worthy causes then I can see why people might feel good about supporting the institution, irrespective of the wisdom of the latest mission(s), in this and other ways.

But, it gives me the uncomfortable feeling of being similar to radical Islamists convincing their suicide bombers that they will be hailed as heroic martyrs, their families will be honored and helped, and they will receive rewards in the afterlife. This might help with recruitment, but it’s not necessarily noble if the cause isn’t necessarily noble.

So, I think I share Hayes’ concern that reflexively calling the fallen “heroes” might encourage people to support future military missions even if they are not worthy of support on the merits.

I do honor the courageous people who risk everything in worthy causes, and I feel very sad about the dead and injured and their families. But, I also value good judgment and valid criticism, and I’m afraid that the tradition of being lavish with honorifics for the dead serves to inhibit these things. We can honor the dead by allowing them to remind us how important it is to avoid foolishly increasing their numbers.

Let’s do that.


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