I suppose I could get myself all worked up about Chris Hayes feeling “uncomfortable” bestowing the moniker of “hero” on our victorious dead, as others have, but I’d much rather try to parse the fellow’s thought process:
“Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word hero?” Hayes said. “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.”
What I think he’s saying (as much as so pretentious and vague an utterance says anything) is that calling our dead soldiers “heros” creates a useful rhetorical device to argue in favor of more war. Which doubtless sounds like an intelligent and useful insight to Hayes. However, like most things that sound intelligent, it’s wrong.
In the first place, wars are never justified by the desire to have more dead people. Or, for that matter, to have more heros. Heroism is the one good by-product of war, and it happens only because war is itself so awful. To claim that anyone in 2003 advertised a few thousand more headstones in Arlington to sell the invasion of Iraq is ridiculous on its face. Wars are always justified in spite of the expected loss, always fought in the hope of averting a worse outcome. Anyone with a basic understanding of history or human psychology should understand that.
In the second place, remembering and honoring our dead looks to the past, not to the future. There is in Arlington a famous monument, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It has stood for decades, and the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment has guarded the tomb as long. We cannot know if that soldier really was heroic in battle. For all we know, he was shot by a sniper Somewhere in France while lighting a cigarette five minutes after arriving in his first trench. It doesn’t matter. We call him a hero because he gave his life on behalf of his country. That debt is eternal, and it is the very least we can do.
Consider the Gettysburg Address:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
Of course, Lincoln erred on the side of humility. And yes, he went on to say that those living ought to renew their devotion to the cause. But his point stands: a hero is a hero before we name him such, and remains one after anyone knows who he was or how he died. We give him the tribute out of the highest and oldest obligation. He went off a sound, healthy man, and vanished into history’s ugly maw. We salute him in the highest of terms to get a little off him back, to repudiate in memory the death that claimed him far too soon. It is a function of mourning, not bloodthirstiness. That sometimes the wounded heart becomes an angry heart does not change our duty to the wound.