OPINION: On Memorial Day
Remember our fallen, yes, but also challenge our assumptions.
On Memorial Day, as on our entire parade of patriotic holidays, I feel…conflicted. I am certain that these days are important, allowing us to remember those who fell in the service of our country, and reminding us not to lose contact with those who serve still. But, too often, the rhetoric around these calendar-endorsed remembrances devolves into the jingoistic.
It’s not that vets are forgotten; in fact, it’s quite the contrary. Today, the American service member is more front and center than ever. The problem I see is that too often, commemoration takes a facile symbolic form instead of any kind of actual reflection or action; a second concern is that near-worship of our military means much-needed debate over overseas adventures becomes overshadowed by polemics.
Facebook statuses or free meals are nice, but where is the much-needed systemic bulkup of the VA? Why does debate over the bloated defense budget devolve into who loves America more?
This Memorial Day, these issues were snapped into place by the furor over MSNBC host Chris Hayes’ comments regarding “heroes.” In discussing the past decade of war, Hayes said:
“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. 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.”
And the interwebs, essentially, blew up. Responses ranged from the quasi-thoughtful to the outright outrageous, including ad hominem attacks on Hayes’ masculinity. Even local TV cognescenti insisted on getting into the act, with Baltimore Sun opinionator David Zurawik, namechecking his “Ph.D. in American Studies” (required courses: Intro to Applebees, Seminar on Jorts), calling Hayes’ comments “pseudo-intellectual vanity and self-absorbed, TV media talk at its worst.”
I may not be a doctor of ‘Murica, but I’m more concerned with the reaction to Hayes’ comments than the comments themselves, mostly because an aggrieved tone and posture of righteous indignation is so much easier than challenging an accepted norm.
Why do we place the military on such a pedestal? First, of course, is the nature of the job. These men and women willingly place their life on the line…for what? Frequently, service members are praised for “defending our freedom” but I think most using this platitude would have a tough a time, as I do, drawing a causal relationship between fighting and dying in Iraq or Afghanistan and our freedom to complain about MSNBC talking heads.
I’m not some peace-loving hippie beatnik; I’ve been thanked by an Iraqi for being there, for, as he put it, “getting rid of Saddam,” and proud of it. (He then gave me a list of grievances over how the Americans were running the show, but that’s a geo-political story for another day.) I’m not so foolish as to not recognize the United States' realpolitik motivations in the Middle East. How those actions affected the freedom of Middle America, though, is a much tougher question, and we should be brave enough to ask it without worrying about denigrating those who served.
There is also the fact that continued veneration of the military is critical in maintaining an all-volunteer force, a privilege the vast majority of the American people have enjoyed for 39 years, through at least three wars (depending on how one counts). It is critical that those who don’t serve maintain a societal benefit to joining beyond the obvious material benefits, to lend a greater purpose and weight to the high school senior who needs to pay for college. Serving overseas is a lot easier knowing you come home to both an adoring community and free mini-golf.
All of which makes all of us who call each and every uniform a “hero” somewhat complicit in maintaining a ready force of volunteers to do our dirty work.
Last week, Paul Fussell died. A Purple Heart and Bronze Star winner, Fussel, as his New York Times obituary says, was a “wide-ranging, stingingly opinionated literary scholar and cultural critic” with a “withering scorn for the romanticization of war.” Fussell’s decorated veteran status allowed him to challenge an overly righteous view of war, and do it as an intellectual. “Professor” should not be an insult, as it is in today’s political discourse, and deep analysis should not be a sign of weakness. Good decisions do not come from the gut. We need to know the line between romanticization and respect, and Fussell sought it out, unapologetically. Our national discourse was the better for it.
I’m not a decorated combat vet, or even a combat vet. Still, though, I knowingly use my veteran’s status as a shield behind which I can make the kind of arguments civilians would be pilloried for. This is a problem. Our military is consciously under civilian control, and, in an open democracy, all military action should be openly debated without feeling as though to oppose military action is to oppose the members of the military themselves. Since the U.S. so poorly handled the reintroduction of Vietnam vets into the national conversation, it has become increasingly difficult to have a sane conversation about the use of force that doesn’t veer alarmingly to one side or another.
In the United States of America, today, the president maintains a secret “kill list” that includes Americans. Drones fly and fire over sovereign nations. Prisoners are held, without trial, indefinitely. The NSA’s net capturing communications grows ever wider. If it’s Americans' freedom we seek to defend, perhaps we should look a little closer to home.
An assumption left unchallenged is a liability. When it comes to war, sending our youth to fight and die overseas, we shouldn’t allow platitudes to paper over legitimate concerns. The language we use is important, as Hayes was trying to point out, and is part of a larger, critically important conversation he was trying to introduce. Castigating him for challenging the veneer you use to sleep soundly at night serves no one.