On Chris Hayes & America’s Fallen Heroes

I will admit I was watching the F1 Grand Prix de Monaco this morning and not Up With Chris Hayes on MSNBC. It turns out I missed some controversy. I was referred to the matter by Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway. Mataconis argued that it seemed like the wrong tone for Memorial Day.

The key quote from the article Doug cited, which was from Mediate, quoted Hayes where he says he feels:

…uncomfortable, about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, 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. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

Chris Hayes is a young and very smart talent in the progressive media, and his show has been a beyond rare breath of fresh air generally in what is the pitiful morass of cable news programming. Hayes quickly showed why by referring critics to the video at right, which does indeed present a much fuller and more nuanced take on the issue. As Jeremy Scahill noted, Hayes is being mauled for taking such a deeper and more nuanced look at the issue of praise for war. I agree wholeheartedly with Jeremy.

But, still, I have some, granted also nuanced, qualms.

Contrast Hayes tact with that of Olivier Knox of Yahoo News on Friday:

Memorial Day Weekend: My thoughts inevitably drift to visits to the Normandy Beaches. More moving each passing year. Merci.

When I was a kid, it was hard to appreciate the “full measure of devotion.” Also my French grandparents hadn’t fully briefed me.

There is a palpable difference in tone between the initial takes of Knox and Hayes. While I originally instinctively gravitated toward the Knox take, the more I chew on it, I think Scahill has a point, and the more I think my knee jerk reaction to Hayes was a bit too reflexive and shallow. Here is why.

It is a generational thing to some extent, and the wider the age gap in people reacting to this, the generally wider the potential for adverse reaction. That, of course, is not totally the crux of the biscuit (as Frank Zappa would say), but I think it may be a large part of it.

Chris Hayes touched on a critical and under appreciated point: there is far too much cheerleading for war propagated through obligatory honor of the souls the powers that be send to fight the wars. It does cloud and mask the reality of what is transpiring on the greater moral and humanitarian stage, and does so very much to the detriment of society and the relevant discussion. That is just a fact in my book.

By the same token, the older voices among us, even those of us who grew up with the mess that was Vietnam, still grew up in the halo years of WW II, with the remnants of WW I that preceded it. When I think of Memorial Day, it is under a mental framework cast in those terms, that was still the framework conveyed in the 60’s and, even if lesser, still in the 70’s and 80’s. Vietnam was the aberration, not the norm, for a very long time when considering war and “war heroes”.

And that was me, a kid who mercifully avoided the draft and never served. I think the feelings could, and may well be, even stronger among those who did serve or, like Olivier Knox, who have land and families free today because of the last devotion expended on the beaches of Normandy or Okinawa.

To an older generation, and the differently situated, Memorial Day exists to honor true heroes. American soldiers who died so that you, me, Chris Hayes and everyone else may all have the discussions we do. The fact they gave what they did allows that. And, yes, they ARE heroes.

It is indeed a complex dynamic. Could Chris Hayes have exercised a bit more rhetorical discretion; no question. And he would be wise to not paint it quite as much as he does so primarily in terms of Afghanistan and, presumably, if not mentioned, Iraq (leaving aside Yemen and our other, um, areas of interest/conflict); there is a much larger and older framework, as Hayes himself cogently noted in his lead in.

But move beyond the patina of insensitivity, and Chris Hayes was quite right. We need desperately to unhinge the valor of our troops from the moral squalor of our leaders. Memorial Day may be a touchy time to hear that, but it needs to be said.

[Notice of Erratum: I would like to make quite clear that I do not think Chris Hayes and Olivier Knox are at any odds here; not at all. I simply found their initial takes demonstrative of the greater depth of the issue and discussion here, and illustrative of the point. Thanks to my friend Olivier for pointing that out]

35 replies
  1. Arbusto says:

    You said it in a nut shell:

    We need desperately to unhinge the valor of our troops from the moral squalor of our leaders.

    I watched Taking Chance tonight on cable. It was on of course because it’s Memorial day. If you haven’t seen it, in short it’s the experience of a Marine Major returning the remains of a PFC to his family in Wyoming, chronicling the reactions and respect of he and many bystanders he encountered during Chances trip home.

    It was for me a tearjerker, but mainly from anger and growing feelings importance, looking back at the lies that lead to the death of Chance and 4500 other troops and tens of thousands being maimed, and that so many fellow citizens bought into and still buy the bullshit spewed by Bush and Cheney.

  2. Peterr says:

    I’m just into the second chapter of Rachel Maddow’s book “Drift”, and she notes the powerful ways in which the rhetoric of war have been made part of the cultural fabric, especially with regard to politics. I have a hunch that she and Chris may be on the same page here . . . but let me finish the book first and I’ll get back to you on that.

    But move beyond the patina of insensitivity, and Chris Hayes was quite right. We need desperately to unhinge the valor of our troops from the moral squalor of our leaders. Memorial Day may be a touchy time to hear that, but it needs to be said.


    And it needs to be said on Memorial Day weekend, as I did on Saturday at FDL. Hugh Thompson, one of the genuine heroes of My Lai, made similar comments to these at a lecture he gave at the US Naval Academy. From my post:

    Thompson’s story is not just about what happened in 1968, but also about what happened afterwards and what will happen down the road. It’s about leadership and the failures thereof. It’s about peer pressure, both negative and positive. It’s about what happens when revenge becomes the motive for military action. “You can’t start an operation or a daily task with those three negatives: bad leadership, negative peer pressure, and revenge.”. . .

    [Thompson went on:]

    Prejudice was another thing I think played a part in it, because our training had dehumanized the enemy. They weren’t our equals. They were, you know, a lower class than us, so that’s not good. Everybody is equal. Nobody is better than you. Nobody is worse than you. We’re all human beings. You might outrank somebody, but that doesn’t make you any better than him, and I’ll tell you when you all graduate from here, every enlisted man and NCO in the military is required to salute you. None of them are required to respect you, and if you don’t have the respect of somebody, you’re not going to make it long in my military, and all services are my military, I’ll tell you.

    I worry when I read Marcy Wheeler’s reporting on John Brennan or drones or Gitmo and indefinite detention or more drones or bmaz on Jose Rodriguez and the destruction of torture tapes and think about the civilian and military leadership in Washington DC. Reading posts like those, I see failures of leadership, negative peer pressure, a lust for revenge, and prejudice driving US actions.

    Internal links omitted here, but go read the whole thing. Watch the embedded 60 Minutes video, and follow the links to Thompson’s whole lecture, including the Q&A that followed.

    You can’t talk about honoring heroes without addressing failures in leadership, of which we have seen far, far too much in the last 11 years.

    We’ve had too many civilian and military leaders more worried about being saluted than being respected.

  3. pdaly says:

    Dying for a worthy cause makes that person a hero, but Memorial Day should be beyond hero worship.

    I was moved by a descriptions of women in Jackson, Mississippi in 1865 (on the eve of Confederate defeat) decorating not only their Confederate soldiers’ graves but the graves of the Union soldiers as well. It was spontaneous, before Memorial Day was memorial day, and an act to acknowledge the humanity of all the fallen (not just the heroes–who they would have defined as just Condfederate soldiers, no doubt).

    Perhaps this is the spirit of Memorial Day. And perhaps Memorial Day is best “run” by civilians and not by government-neither by politicians nor by the military. Hero worship can happen in another venue.

    Separating good vs. bad dying (while tempting to the living) is to miss the point.

    Memorial Day, therefore, might also extend to honoring the deaths of those our soldiers killed. This might be controversial but in the spirit of Mrs. [Sue Landon Adams] Vaughan’s actions above.

  4. dugsdale says:

    Having spent boyhood absorbing the remembered glory of WWII, and a young manhood drenched in the corrosive reality of Vietnam, I’ve found some truth in the notion of “lions led by donkeys.” I take the sacrifices of our soldiers very much on a personal level–decoupling it from the policies that created the need for it in the first place. I have immense disgust for the military leaders that continue to push unwinnable Afghanistan, because I don’t see one more tinpot general’s career trajectory, especially when it’s won through someone else’s blood being spilled, as being remotely worth it. Thanks Peterr for the mention of your post. I’ll read it; although a couple of things jump out at me: the dehumanization of the enemy seems to be an ineluctable part of the combat experience, probably even necessary from the standpoint of effectiveness. I worry at the militarization of domestic police forces, partly for this reason: police training that buys into this dehumanization as part of the “glory package” police get when the spiffy new equipment arrives, which means you and I and all of us here are potentially expendable enemy combatants, as has been seen recently through the police brutality directed against women and property recently.

    I do agree that Memorial Day should be beyond mindless hero worship, maybe combining a sober and reverent respect for those who died, together with an equally sober and hardnosed awareness of the many times these lions were pushed to sacrifice by failed policies created, sadly, by donkeys.

  5. Jeff Kaye says:

    An interesting case to ponder today, from a government record:

    In February 1994, the veteran filed a claim of entitlement to
    service connection for an anxiety disorder.

    On VA examination in March 1994, the veteran reported
    symptoms of anxiety and depression over the past few months.
    He stated the symptoms increased since his wife left him in
    November 1993. The veteran reported he had panic attacks in
    1989, which started following in-service survival training.
    During the training, he was “drowned” on a torture board,
    and since then he had nightmares of the incident.
    reported being distressed about the flashbacks and
    nightmares. The veteran stated that he continued with the
    survival training since he volunteered to do so. Prior to
    1989, he did not have anxiety or panic attacks, but since
    then he had unusual fears.

    After examination, it was commented that the veteran by
    history had symptoms of anxiety, panic disorder, and symptoms
    suggestive of PTSD. The trauma in his case was the training
    he had received in the military. The drowning incident had
    affected his life quite significantly. Although he had PTSD
    symptomatology, his disability was related to associated
    anxiety, depression, and psychosocial stressors, particularly
    regarding his two difficult marriages. The diagnoses were
    major depression, recurrent, in partial remission; PTSD,
    delayed, of mild severity; panic disorder, in remission; and
    history of alcohol use, active.

    By rating action of April 1994, with notice to the veteran in
    the same month, service connection for PTSD was denied. The
    RO determined that the VA examiner accepted the veteran’s
    report regarding the incident in service at face value, and
    there was no independent verification that the rigorous
    training actually existed….

    A Vet Center record from November 1998 shows that the veteran
    reported that in service he volunteered for a survival,
    evasion, resistance, and escape school in May 1989. He
    reported being tied, stripped of clothing and beaten. He
    also reported that a bag was placed over his head, an
    unloaded gun was placed to his head and the trigger was
    pulled. With respect to the drowning episode the veteran
    stated that he was strapped to a table with a cloth over his
    mouth and was unable to breath and water was poured in his
    mouth when the cloth was removed and replaced quickly to
    prevent breathing. He reported experiencing panic attacks
    one month later and having violent nightmares. The diagnosis
    was chronic PTSD

    In response to a request from the veteran sent to people who
    had been in the SERE program with the veteran, Mr. G. stated
    that he would like to help concerning the VA claim, however
    all events that occurred during SERE school were classified
    and could not be discussed without the service’s permission.

    Interesting, eh?

    Don’t worry, I wouldn’t bum you out on Memorial Day. There is happy ending to this story. In June 2003, the VA heard this vet’s appeal, and decided to consider a statement he made under oath in November 2001 about his experiences to constitute “new evidence”, even though it mainly repeated his earlier story. In any case, the VA appeal board stated:

    In light of the fact that the veteran has been diagnosed with
    PTSD, as the evidence shows that the appellant did experience
    a verified in-service stressor at SERE school, and as the
    SERE school experience is the basis for the diagnosis of
    PTSD, the undersigned finds that service connection for PTSD
    is in order.

    Now, this is not the only case in which a VA service connection for PTSD related to SERE training has taken place. I wrote about another case here.

    Given the inherent interest of these cases for their impact on the lies that were used to justify SERE-style torture and the psychological and permanent damage resulting therefrom — even in school training — lies presented by and to OLC, DoD, CIA, etc., and not to mention the fact that SERE training may just be too dangerous to use in general… how much media interest has there been in these cases? I’ll tell you. Zero.

  6. dugsdale says:

    @bmaz: thanks, bmaz, I just want to add the URL for the post where I first learned of the “Lions led by donkeys” metaphor: it’s a passionate, morally grounded rant about the self-righteous celebration of Memorial-day heroism by those who’ve personally paid no price for it, and don’t deserve the self-aggrandizement they draw from it. I return to this post from time to time; I find it bracing and clarifying.


  7. Seedee Vee says:

    “Hero Worship” is still worshipping and I thought we were, as a nation, supposed to have separated our State and Church.

    Very very very few soldiers are heroic. Most do nothing, most of the time. Some are mass murderers of their fellow man, some of the time. To claim that a dead soldier – “The fact they gave what they did allows that. And, yes, they ARE heroes.” – is heroic because he died is such an extreme example of intellectual dishonesty that it is almost embarssing to have to point it out here.

    Does bmaz celebrate the “heroic” actions of all soldiers or is this just a day to wave our flag?

    It is the weakest of weak sauce to crawl back into our history and try to claim that our wars to save imperialism were motivated by concerns of anything other than that of “Saving the Empire”.


  8. Kathleen says:

    I thought Hayes hit the right tone. On the upcoming Memorial day was a bit touchy. Americans do not want to hear anywhere close to the truth about Iraq/Afghanistan let alone even close. The majority of Americans along with Rachel Maddow want to keep repeating that soldiers sent to Iraq were being sent to protect “our freedoms” Was a great program. Really liked that Chris Hayes on several occasions has brought up the deaths of innocents in Afghanistan and Iraq…still no numbers but he whispers about it. Much more than the rest of the host on MSNBC programs. Well on second thought Dylan Ratigan has gone much further (on accountability and truth about Iraq) than any of the other host on that outlet. Marcy Wheeler would be a great guest on that panel. Have pushed over there.

  9. bmaz says:

    @Seedee Vee: What a scurrilous little rant. No, not all military are perfect, not by a longshot; but a hell of a lot of Americans have died so you can spew such revoltingly ungrateful horse manure on the day meant to honor the dead.

  10. Raphael Cruz says:

    as a vietnam war veteran approaching my 65th birthday and as one born in germany of u.s. military parents after ww2, i am inclined to agree with chris hayes and to discount a generational difference in perspective… while i do agree there IS a generational difference, i attribute that more to the mental calcification of age and the need to justify one’s actions in hindsight than to genuine differences in values or beliefs between the older and younger generations…

    i am deeply disturbed at any glorification of war and even more disturbed at the emergence of terminology such as “warriors” and “warfighters”… throughout the history of the virtually endless wars waged by the united states, it has always been the super-rich elites who send the lower rungs of our society off to fight and die, soliciting their patriotism and loyalty in the delusion of spreading freedom and democracy which conveniently masks their all-consuming greed…

    i am extremely grateful to have had the chance to experience a war first-hand in vietnam as a soldier and more recently in afghanistan as a development consultant… both experiences have only served to reinforce my abhorrence at war in any form and increased my empathy for those who are its unwitting pawns… i am also extremely grateful to be able to obtain my health care from the va since i would not otherwise be able to afford it…

    if we ever see anything as sensible as universal service to benefit our common good – as opposed to the betterment of our ruling elite – it would include at least three hours once a year spent sitting in the entrance lobby of a veterans administration hospital witnessing the parade of human wreckage that passes through its doors and reflecting on the obscenity of why something like that should ever have to be…


  11. tjallen says:

    Serving in the recent US wars is not moral, nor honorable. Young citizens should be educated to say no to these immoral wars. When they voluntarily chose to participate in immoral acts, I will not cheer them on.

  12. bmaz says:

    You know, I have no more brief for the “recent US wars” than anybody else here, but you do not have to cheer war, good or bad, to have a little human decency and modicum of respect for people that died in service of their country.

  13. tjallen says:

    I can imagine a wide range of morally justified collective self-defense, and I feel great respect and honor toward those who participated, and especially those who gave their life, in such causes.

    How much wrongness is needed before the young citizen must accept blame and responsibility for enlisting in immoral national causes? Invasions on pretext? Aggressive war? Slaughter of innocents (100 innocents per terrorist?)? Kidnapping and torture of “bad guys”, their families and relatives? All this is widely announced in our nations’ newspapers, so there is no claiming lack of knowledge.

    I feel sad and defeated. What a waste of our best resource, our children! My country glorifies war and warmongering, my taxes pay for 5-6 simultaneous semi-secret wars all over the globe, the young citizens continue to join up. Yes, there is strong peer- and community-pressure, and yes, many have the chemistry of youth and Mars flowing in their veins. But they also have hopelessly inadequate moral education and contradictory beliefs, and follow our national leaders straight into huge moral failures, for which we are responsible, and have completely failed them.

  14. Jeff Kaye says:

    Worth reading, Wilfred Owen’s classic poem on war, written from the bloody killing fields of the first World War.


    The poem famously ends with words from the Latin poet, Horace: “Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori” (“It is sweet and right to die for your country”).

    Owen, who died in combat, called such a sentiment “the big lie”.

    I honor the sacrifice of those who died. Some to secure freedom, some to secure the wealth and power of an elite. We must see both sides of it to understand the terrible ironies we live under. It’s not either/or.

    By the by, nothing about World War I was about securing democracy in the U.S. It was a total clusterfuck, and the crime of it ended with a “victors’ peace” which brought us Hitler, Mussolini, and “the stab in the back” myth. The result of the latter wafted back as smoke out of the chimneys at Majdanek, Treblinka, and Auschwitz.

    I honor those who fought for nothing, as much as I honor those who fought for something, and those who died as innocents in the megabattle that was “total war”. All human life is holy.

    I suggest that those interested in the soldiers’ experience read (if they haven’t already), the greatest American book to come out of WWII, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.

  15. masaccio says:

    Aside from nuance, there’s just this. You don’t get to be a hero solely because you serve. If that were enough, I’d be a hero. I’m not. We cheapen the words when we use them like that.

  16. prostratedragon says:

    By the late 1950s, the WWII and Korean War veterans and their old, old stories were supposed to have got off everyone’s nerves and got with the new program. A fair amount of reaction to this pressure showed up not so surreptitiously in popular media of the day. In this example, amid the usual series setting of postwar-last-of-the-noirs limbo, is an example of how getting with the program might have been encouraged.

    From Peter Gunn, “The Dirty Word”

  17. Seedee Vee says:

    @bmaz: Sorry to be too scurilous for your Precoius Little Mind.

    When is the day we remember the Millions of Humans Sacrificed by our Military so that you can have a feel good day?

    Not one soldier died for my sins, my favor or my life. I owe nothing to any soldier or any figment of your imagination.

  18. Bay State Librul says:

    Taling about the war and soldiers is the new Third Rail of American
    I don’t like the word “warriors”

  19. Julia Holcomb says:

    @Jeff Kaye: @Jeff Kaye:

    Thanks for this reference: my syllabus at the community college calls for me to teach Owen’s great poem today. The pile-on on Chris Hayes’ thoughtful, careful comments is a powerful reminder that the old lie is still alive and well.

  20. bmaz says:

    @masaccio: Memorial day is not about those who simply served, that is Veteran’s day. Memorial Day is about those who died serving their country. I have no problem whatsoever giving them a little respect and gratitude for having done so.

    Hayes’ point is valid and needs to be said, and it is not inconsistent with respecting those who gave their lives.

  21. Gov't Mule says:

    I knew that the RW blogs would immediately condemn Hayes without reviewing the full substance of his remarks and instead simply quote him out of context. Hayes often a nuanced commentary on why soldiers — like cops and firefighters — are nor heroes because everyone says so. We throw around the hero tag so often it is often devoid of any meaning. Hayes is both uncomfortable w/ the over use of hero as well as its implications in glorifying war and violence. And if the totality of his comments are mentioned, it should be obvious to anyone w/ a high school level of reading comprehension exactly what he meant. Are you listening teabaggers?

  22. kathleen says:

    There is a great deal of territory between “hero worship” and disrespecting the instinct to serve.

  23. wavpeac says:

    How is calling a dead soldier a hero, just for being dead, any different than the way terrorists refer to a suicide bomber? Same deal in my opine. The act of valor is dying. A true hero is not a hero for dying. We are all going to die. A hero is a hero for behaving heroically sometimes operating under the fear of death or courage against it. The hero part has nothing to do with dying. The hero part has to do what what that person did while alive.

    We need to discern the reason for heroism. It has to be more than because you died in a war. Otherwise, it’s no different than saying you are going to Allah, if you die a martyr. And it is propaganda for war.

  24. bmaz says:

    @wavpeac: Why does that “distinction” possibly have any merit or analogy? Or, alternatively, I would argue, it ought have the same merit respectively in the same communities. They honor their martyrs for being willing to die in the name and cause of and for what they believe in. Just because we believe in a different, nee totally opposite to most, thing does not mean we should discount or shit on those who have been willing to die to allow us to be where we are (even if that is a semi-fucked up place).

    I find this to be a specious argument.

  25. Petrocelli says:

    Hey Bmaz, I saw a Fisker Karma, real and up close and the photos don’t do justice.

    As soon as I was done admiring all the angles, its owner got in and smoothly drove off, so I could enjoy it a while longer …

  26. wavpeac says:

    Bmaz, my point is that when other cultures do it, we judge it as nefarious. I am not calling it that, but I am saying that honoring someone just because they died, not because of the job they did, or they way they behaved while alive, is a call to arms. It puts the focus on the dying, not on the valor per se. When we honor a soldier for his heroic behavior, say facing fear and enlisting, or something that they did, while alive, and we honor them in their death as we do everyone who dies, then we are focusing on life. When we focus on death in a course of war, we make you a hero just for dying, isn’t that creating a “suicide culture”? And couldn’t it even be part of the reason so many soldiers commit suicide?

  27. Seedee Vee says:

    @bmaz: Still going on about your mind-reading capabilities — “those who have been willing to die to allow us to be where we are . . .”?

    No admittance that many of your “heroes” were just draftees that did not want to go to prison? or were just succumbing to peer pressure? or were just homicidal maniacs, jacked up on war-time propaganda?

    Any words of praise for our Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. guards that tortured and murdered their way to “allow us to be where we are”? Oh, they didn’t die. Can’t be a heroic action, then?

    “Honor” is not heroism. You are confused on that point and your insults to us that don’t agree with you is downright pathetic.

  28. klynn says:

    Off topic but slightly related. Watched a Memorial Day parade where a candidate used posters of members of his family that served in WWII to walk in the parade and slipped in his campaign posters too. He had everyone marching with him wearing campaign t-shirts and handing out campaign material.

    Very tacky, cheap and thoughtless. The oldest profession in the world came to mind.

  29. Alan Bickley says:

    A recurrent assertion in the postings and comments of persons who defend a televised discussion of the uses of the word “hero” is that Americans served in dangerous places on land and sea to protect the right to write or to speak freely about sensitive subjects. It is a pleasant thought, and it is useful to Chris Hayes as he enlarges the area of televised inquiry every weekend. But it is probably a fiction, and it has certainly not been proved. Some service people say, when asked, that they are fighting for the Four Freedoms or one or more of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. Some, however, repeat some patent and thoroughly discredited propaganda point, such as to punish Saddam Hussein for the 911 attack. But all of that is beside the point because the people who are in greatest peril on the battlefield have the least to say about their being there. The decisions to go to war are made at a level above the battlefield that can be described as Olympian by persons whose agendas have nothing to do with protecting the rights to assemble and to speak freely. Those agendas used to be very heavy with dynastic concerns; today they are more about economic domination, domestic political imperatives, and military Keynesianism. In any event, the act of battlefield heroism is almost always the result of the bonding of members of a fighting unit; you don’t let your comrades down. If it were anything else we would not hear so many combat veterans say that civilians don’t get it and will never get it.

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