“Hero” is one of the most abused words in English — or any language, for that matter. Saddam Hussein’s final TV message praised each of his regional fedayeen commanders with the honorific al-butl, “the hero;” taped in advance, it was broadcast at the very moment he was quietly slipping out of Baghdad. Until 2009, the very real heroism of American soldiery in the quagmire of a collapsed Iraqi state was used to justify the error of breaking that state in the first place, which was in turn an abuse of the heroism of 9/11. As MSNBC weekend host Chris Hayes observed to some controversy the other day, ‘hero’ has been “rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war” since the invention of politics. The war on terror has offered nothing new in that regard.
I must admit my own first reaction was touchy, but not because of what Mr. Hayes said. Rather, what inflamed me was the attempt at supportive commentary by a certain pacifist tranche of progressive politics. For what Chris Hayes regularly refers to as “the liberal-industrial state” is intimately and inextricably connected to the “war machine” of pacifist-progressive outrage, and conservatives have exploited this alienating dissonance between the hippies and the Democratic Party for decades. The devaluation of military service in Vietnam — those apocryphal accounts of spitting at airports and accusations of baby-killing — had negative consequences for liberalism. Why would any “progressive” want to repeat that experience with the next generation of veterans?
Moreover, it is critical that we understand military service is an inherently leveling experience. Hayes skirted the dangerous territory of defining “real” heroism:
I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect 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.
Take a typical 18-year old recruit trained to drive a truck. Put them in an unarmored cab hauling logistics to Forward Operating Bases. Even if they are so lucky as to never be struck by shrapnel in the course of a one-year tour of Iraq, each and every single mission will take place in the hyper-awareness and stress of a combat zone riddled with IEDs and snipers. This is on top of the daily punishment that is peacetime, even stateside service: there is a reason why the military makes retirement available after only 20 years, and soldiers who stay on airborne jump status for ten years are granted disability ratings whether they need them yet or not.
Of course, Hayes wasn’t actually trying to separate heroic goats from poltroon sheep. But altogether too many progressives do, and in the most well-meaning way, when they differentiate the Marine who pulls a friend out of the fire from the drone operator who puts fire on their enemies. Uniforms make these people exactly like one another precisely so that their service has equal value. But their collective and individual heroism recommends and redeems them, not the conflict in which they serve.