Thursday, May 31, 2012

We Need to Respect, Not Objectify, America's Soldiers


This past Memorial weekend was marked by a flap over MSNBC pundit Chris Hayes’ televised musings during an hour-long panel on veterans and soldiers that, despite his deep respect for the armed forces who have served in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, he was not sure if he would call them “heroes” just for going over there: 

...it is, I think, very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen, without invoking valor, without invoking the words heroes. And 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. And 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, in a hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers and things like that. But it seems to me we marshal this word in a way that's problematic. Maybe I'm wrong.

In the ensuing furor, pundits on cable news shows, blogs, and journals denounced Hayes.  Newsbusters declared him “effete,”  AnnCoulter, ever the class act, tweeted "Chris Hayes 'Uncomfortable' Calling Fallen Military 'Heroes'--Marines respond by protecting his right to menstruate." Richard DeNoyer, National Commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), told Fox News that "Chris Hayes' recent remarks on MSNBC regarding our fallen service members are reprehensible and disgusting." VFW accordingly demanded an immediate apology, and Hayes complied

Others offered more nuanced assessments of the comment.  Unfortunately, many in so doing have focused narrowly on whether simply going to war qualifies as heroic (see here and here).  WashingtonPost blogger, Erik Wemple, got closer to the substance of Hayes’ point--that equating soldiers with heroes helps to justify war-making—but vehemently rejected it by pointing out that the justifications for war in Iraq and Afghanistan had nothing to do with war heroes, but focused instead on WMD, terrorism, and regime change: "at least in the case of the Iraq war, lies or huge mistakes--not heroes--were in the vicinity of the official justifications."

Sadly, the commentary was so caught up in the drama of hero talk--who deserves the moniker, and who does not--that there was no room for discussing the truly powerful critique that Hayes was making.

At the most basic level, Hayes’ comment was not about whether or not servicemen and women ipso facto qualify as heroes.  It was a critique of our militaristic culture and the way America goes to war.  What Hayes was saying was that calling men and women in uniform “heroes” and dogmatically insisting on this moniker effectively renders the war effort “heroic” and therefore morally just and worthy of sacrifices in human lives and income.  In other words, calling our military forces heroes has the indirect effect of legitimizing war (both ongoing and in the making).

To Wempel: sure, WMD, terrorism, and evil dictators were the specific justifications given for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But the universally recognized heroism of our men and women in uniform in the Middle East was what helped legitimize the war effort once it got underway and what has made it worthy in the minds of the American public. 

The U.S. military understands this.  Why else would army officials, in cooperation with the media, have concocted an elaborate story in 2003 making Jessica Lynch, a private injured in an attack on her convoy and later taken to an Iraqi hospital where she was treated for her wounds, a great American hero who went down shooting and was held hostage (and possibly tortured) until American soldiers rescued her (a rescue that was filmed)?  In congressional testimony, Lynch denied the story and claims that she was a war hero, saying they had “made her into little girl Rambo” and “I’m still confused why they lied and tried to make me into a legend.” 

It is not to entertain the public or even make individual soldiers look good that the military does this.  Make-believe hero epics are reality advertisement not only for the military, but also for their wars.  Impossible, reality-TV like portrayals of ordinary Americans-cum-great-American-heroes is critical for maintaining public support for continual warfare and for the massive military budget that this entails.

The need for war heroes also drove the government cover-up of the friendly-fire death of former NFL football star and army ranger, Pat Tillman, who joined the service after 9/11 to fight for his country  After participating in the Iraqi invasion, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he was killed in a friendly figure incident in 2004.  The military, however, put out of the story that he was killed by enemy fire and arranged to award him the silver star.  It is only through the tireless efforts of his family, most especially his mother, that the truth finally came to light.  Said his mother:  

"After [Tillman's death] happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this.  They purposesly interfered with the investigation; they covered it up.  I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy."

Indeed.  Tillman was initially seen as a huge boon for military recruitment and as a powerful endorsement for the war.  No less than Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld took a personal interest in Tillman's status, writing to him personally to commend his enlistment decision as "proud and patriotic."  He also wrote a "snowflake memo" to his generals suggesting that "we might want to keep an eye on him."  In the end, army officials concluded that he had to be given a fittingly heroic death in order to protect the legend.  

This is par for the course for an institution that views the"war for hearts and minds" as just another battlefront in the wider war.  According to the results of an Associated Press (AP) study published a few years ago, the military spends billions of dollars each year on recruitment, public relations to domestic media audiences, and psychological operations to reach foreign audiences. 

There is a second pernicious effect of continually referring to our servicemen and women as “heroes,” which has a direct impact on the soldiers themselves.  When we insist that they are heroes, it allows us to think of them, their families, and the sacrifices they make abstractly as though they are not ordinary human beings who suffer in the course of war and in its aftermath.

Invoking heroism in one way or another renders military men and women into caricatures—they are superhuman beings who are somehow bigger and braver than us, they exist on another plane.  They can somehow handle the long separations from their families and life in remote outposts in the mountains of Afghanistan.   Our all-professional army have become (or are becoming) a caste apart that lives on or near bases; we  rarely see them unless our family members are in the service or if we live near a base.   All of this makes it easier to think of them and the sacrifices we impose on them abstractly; calling them heroes makes us feel better about the fact that we don’t often think of them at all, except on specially appointed days like Memorial Day.  We say all the right things about the soldiers, make sure to “thank” them for their service in airports and grocery check-out lines, but do we really respect them? 

If we did, would we still be sending them off on multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq with no end in sight?  Would military personnel or veterans be far more likely than those outside of the military to be homelessjoblesstargeted by predatory lenders, and have their homesforeclosed on?    Would there be pressure (from Republicans, no less) to cut billions of dollars from veterans’ health benefits?   No amount of praise for one’s valor will compensate for homelessness, joblessness, or lack of adequate health care.

Two weeks ago my brother-in-law was shipped off to a forward operating base in Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border.  This will be his third tour of duty, just as the Afghan war is winding down.  He has already been deployed twice to Iraq (for one year and one year-and-a-half, successively); he has a stay-at-home wife and six kids to support in Washington state.  Calling him a hero will not compensate for his absence from his family, nor will it give him back the year he will lose in this miserable failed war.  Although his political views differ significantly from my own, I feel pretty sure he would take properly-compensated service over superficial expressions of gratitude in the airport any day.


3 comments:

  1. I see this entire episode as a battle to seize the middle ground of whats acceptable in mainstream American discourse. With the notable exception of the Vietnam years, it seems as though the discourse of American national security culture has been firmly entrenched in conforming to existing norms rather than challenging them.

    On a personal note; having spent five years of the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have a particular appreciation for American troops, and as such, I can also appreciate alternative views that question foreign policy choices that put them "in harms way". Its usually the people who are actually in combat zones who have the greatest appreciation for the depravity of war.

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  2. After the full development of industrial warfare (WWI or even earlier), it is absolutely unreasoned to think about heroism at all in war. This reminds me of international nazis who celebrate every year the breakout of the Waffen SS and Hungarian Army from encircled Buda castle at the end of the siege of Budapest in 1945 as "heroism".

    But that had still more to do with heroism than US/NATO operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, with such a technological superiority, well-paid mercenaries loaded with drugs, drones in the air etc. There is nothing heroic in running on an IED, falling from friendly fire (like those poor Navy SEALs involved in the killing of Osama), or suicide. Not to mention the causes of these wars... Sad, but true.

    Great article!

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  3. @Raoul: Yes, I believe that soldiers in war zones *do* have a unique appreciation of the depravity of war, and this may be one reason that many of those who are most uncomfortable with the term "hero" are the ones to whom it is applied. To me, calling soldiers "heroes" is a cheap and too-easy way for the rest of us to "honor" their sacrifices.

    @Daniel: Word.

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