I spent the weekend goofing off. And, since the kids are out of school, I spent most of the week goofing off. This makes me nearly the last blogger in the sphere to hear about the minor tempest that MSNBC host Chris Hayes sparked on Sunday morning, when he said:
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 comfortable about the world hero? I feel uncomfortable about the world 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.
Before going further, in the interests of full disclosure I should note that Chris' parents and mine are friends. He and I are products of the same liberal village in the Bronx. The military, obviously, is also a sensitive subject with me. We both had the benefit of having the love and support of a tremendous group of thoughtful, intelligent, and compassionate adults. Clearly, we've gone in very different directions. He's gone on to fame as an intelligent, thoughtful progressive voice. I've spent much of the same time raising two children while living on a collection of military bases and worrying my way through 2.5 (and counting) deployments. There was a time when he and I had a great deal in common; that time is long past. Our experiences have been so completely different that they've left me - as he put it earlier in that show - in a nation within a nation, barely inhabiting the same union he does.
I didn't get around to watching the controversial Sunday show until today. Frankly, I'm not sure I should have. It was frustrating and aggravating, and not necessarily because Chris was wrong.
Let's get the "heroes" thing out of the way first. Yes, Chris said something vaguely impolitic, at least in the sense that it gave the professionally outraged on the right something that was easy to distort to fuel their outrage so they can keep selling their shampoo and taking home their paychecks. Big deal. Seriously - watch the damn segment or read the transcript. There were a handful of progressive intellectuals who were agreed that the general military commitment is noble, deserving of respect, honorable, and praiseworthy, but were wondering if the word "hero" is the right one to apply.
Seriously, if you're getting outraged about this, you've got too much time on your hands. I don't really have the same discomfort with the word that Chris does, and I think a case can be made that the word is so overused in general that it's unreasonable not to apply it to the military, but that whole part of the discussion really doesn't make it very far onto my list of things to give a shit about this week. It's an interesting point to consider, but there are a lot of other interesting points out there.
Aside from that, I've only got one other comment on the "heroism" portion of the show: Chris, if you're reading this, I love you like a brother and my mother may still slap me silly for saying this, but using the phrase "rhetorically proximate" on national TV is a pretty good way to look like you're an ivory-tower intellectual with a big 'ol stick shoved up your butt. Just saying.
The part of Sunday's show that offended the professionally offendable didn't faze me in the least. Other parts of the show did disturb me.
Chris devoted a great deal of discussion to the military-civilian divide in this country. That's a subject that's tremendously important. It is not healthy for the military to be isolated from the rest of the nation. It's downright dangerous. But that's exactly where we're going as a nation.
The differences that separate the military life from the civilian world are unreal, and run the gamut from trivial variations in vocabulary to fundamental differences in what makes up normal everyday life. Let's take one example: I'm going to the Big Island for a few days next week, and after that I'll be going to NY to meet my wife for her mid-tour leave. My wife is deployed, so my pre-vacation checklist has an extra item. Besides putting a hold on the mail, finding a kennel for the pets, stopping newspaper delivery, and the other normal pre-vacation tasks, I've got to remember to send a copy of my itinerary to Rear-D.
If you don't know what Rear-D is, that's a minor difference in vocabulary. If you need to think for more than 5 seconds before figuring out why I email them a full copy of my itinerary, that's a fundamental difference in the makeup of everyday normality.
In Chris' neighborhood, Rear-D is not part of everyday life. In my neighborhood, it is. In my neighborhood, last year, we had more than one family that had a parent and a child, both on active duty, both commissioned officers, and both deployed. At the same time, 99% of the country did not have an immediate family member in harm's way. This is a bad thing. We do not want our country's military to be the family business of a very small number of families. Nothing good lies down that road.
To touch on these important and complex issues of military-civilian separation, Chris put together a panel that was conspicuously void of any voice that could speak on the issue from the other side of the divide. That was a bit disappointing, although I'll admit I'm not entirely sure that adding that voice would have helped much. When I mention things like having to inform the Army of my vacation plans to that they can promptly and properly notify me in the event my wife is injured or killed while I'm away, I get a lot of "I can't imagine". It may well be that the gap is that unbridgeable. (That possibility scares the shit out of me.)
Frankly, I almost wish that Chris had devoted more thought and time had been devoted to the issue of the use of the word "hero" in the context of our current wars. I think that "rhetorically proximate" was an awkward choice of words, but there's something real there. Referring to everyone in uniform as a "hero" is a nice, easy way for the bulk of the American public to assuage whatever pangs their consciences might experience when they consider their own lack of sacrifice during the current war. If everyone who serves is special, heroic, above and beyond the norm, you don't have to feel as bad for not participating yourself. You've left it to the heroes to bear that burden.
And people don't want to sacrifice right now. President Bush once declared that the images on TV that the bulk of the public flips past on their way to the latest episode of Real Housewives of the Sopranos is sacrifice enough, and that we shouldn't ask most Americans to sacrifice anything else. So instead, they give the 1% who have elected to take on the part of the social compact that involves personal risk at the direction of others a pat on the head, call them heroes, and send them on their way.
Imagine the hell that would have broken out if Hayes had said that on national TV.