On the other hand, there is media kerfuffle on the Right about Chris Hayes of MSNBC saying he has a problem with using the word, “heroes” for the dead on Memorial Day because that word ennobles war and worst of all, ennobles the current war effort. What could be worse? I saw Chris Hayes opening a discussion and saying what was , on the surface, something a little outrageous. This discussion, I thought, had to have more depth. I offer the longest version I can find. What I hear is not exactly depth. However, the question he raises could be a good one. We call everyone who serves a hero. Are they all heroic?
I have been having a similar conversation with my son, a Navy corpsman who is home for a few days, about who we call heroes these days. His job is working in the Wounded Warrior program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. (He is the one in the back with the ironical eyebrow.) His first deployment, back in 2006, was to Guantanamo Bay where he worked in the detainee hospital, mostly coordinating data. He did that so successfully, he has a citation and medals for his work. His next deployment was to Okinawa where he was responsible for the logistics of sending personnel to and from the war fronts of Iraq and Afghanistan. His last deployment was last year, for six months in Afghanistan, at Camp Bastion, a British military base. Then he was part of a team receiving the damaged from the battlefield stations and moving them further down the chain towards the hospital job he currently has.
He has stories, but pointedly observes that he has always, basically worked at a desk. He is not hero. He works with heroes and has met some heroes so heroic that telling about them makes him weepy. Mostly, he works with servicemen like himself, who are not heroes. They are just doing a job. At base, they should be doing a good job, but that does not make them heroes; we should all do a good job when we work. There is nothing heroic in that.
He will tell us a variety of stories about the people he meets through the Wounded Warrior program. Through him, I have met some of our war’s casualties. Some of those young men I have met were, there is no doubt about it, wounded while being heroes, rescuing other people from harm, risking their lives. However, most of our wounded warriors were hurt while simply doing their jobs, serving their country for mixed reasons. They were driving trucks or patrolling or in a service job. They were not being particularly heroic. They may have taken the job to be heroic, but for most of our servicemen and women, the job of their service is not heroic.
He says that driving a truck in Afghanistan is not inherently more courageous than driving a truck anywhere a little risky, using the Bronx as an example. In fact, according to census bureau statistics, a young man is more likely to die in the cities of the U.S. or on its roadways than when serving in a battle station overseas. Automobile accidents are a major cause of death and disability among young men. So is suicide. Life is risky. What is the difference?
For me there is a difference. I will concede that we have softened the idea of heroism too far. Not all who die or are wounded in the course of duty are heroes. There are true heroes. Among the wounded, there are all sorts of stories. Given the nature of the fight in the Middle East, most people are blown up by IEDs, which leave horrific wounds. He says that, in Afghanistan, at least, people are less likely to get shot because the Taliban cannot shoot straight. That’s a good thing. Getting blown up because your foot landed in the wrong place is the most common way of dying or being wounded. That’s not heroic, he says. He has got a point, and maybe we ought to be more careful in the designation of honor for the heroic. The way our military confers honors for heroism these days has more to do with efficient paperwork than a life laid down in sacrifice. However, I think that volunteering for duty where you know there is the risk of losing limb or life is at least somewhat heroic; certainly if those Marines and soldiers are in the field serving us, we owe them gratitude.
Which brings me back to Chris Hayes, and his discussion about the term heroism. Heroism doesn’t just ennoble war, it ennobles all of us. Mr. Hayes and friends were clearly uncomfortable talking about what might be heroic about war. They’ll nod at gratitude, but clearly think is it gratitude over waste. They offer caveats and hedge their language as if trying to work through a minefield of political correctness. It is a different conversation about heroics than I have heard among our war’s casualties in my son’s living room. But I’ll ask you. Who is a hero? What is heroism about?