Chris Hayes caused quite a bit of commotion this past Memorial Day when he expressed concerns about the way the word “hero” is used in connection with the American military.  On MSNBC, Hayes said, apprehensively: “I feel uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justification for war… 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, 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.”

Having entered a touchy political area, Hayes shrugged his shoulders and jostled his arms, inviting his guests to discuss the matter.  Respectfully, they discussed the word “hero” as a subject of rhetorical analysis, suggesting that although there have been many acts of self-sacrifice and dedication, the word “hero” makes it difficult to understand war as part of a larger political regime not everyone necessarily agrees with.

Despite Hayes’ insistence that he was not trying to undermine any individual’s contributions to the military, his statement was attacked by conservative media.  Sean Hannity, a FOX News correspondent, called it an “outrageous comment,” and a decision to “basically spit in the faces of our fallen heroes.”  Hayes ultimately issued a written apology for his statement, which Sean Hannity also attacked, accusing Hayes of lacking the courage to apologize on television.

The debacle shows how difficult it can be — and thus, how important it is — to reflect on, well, words, particularly those that have become politicized.  Talking about the word “hero” as a subject of rhetorical analysis traces the way we use the word, examines its associations, and unravels how we create meaning through these associative contexts.  This kind of analysis forces us to face the possibility that calling all fallen soldiers “heroes” romanticizes death, war, and extreme violence, an alarming idea to those who do not view America’s military history as victoriously as the word “hero” suggests (to put it lightly).

William J. Astore makes a compelling case for those who, like Hayes, feel uncomfortable with the use of the word “hero.”  In his article, “Why It’s Wrong to Equate Military Service with Heroism,” Astore makes three arguments for why the use of the word “hero” in a military context is damaging:

  1. “By making our military a league of heroes, we ensure that the brutalizing aspects and effects of war will be played down.  In celebrating isolated heroic feats, we often forget that war is guaranteed to degrade humanity.”
  2. “By making our military generically heroic, we act to prolong our wars.  By seeing war as [an] essentially heroic theater, we esteem it even as we excuse it.”
  3. “By insisting programmatically on American military heroism, we also lay a firm foundation for potentially dangerous post-war myths, especially of the blame-mongering ‘stab-in-the-back’ variety.”

I list these points not to express any political point on the matter, but rather to demonstrate Astore’s astute ability to see Hayes’ discomfort as a problem with language and the creation of meaning through language — not an issue of whether or not soldiers deserve to be heroes.  This distinction is essential to understanding Hayes’ point and the debates that followed.

Still, this kind of analysis always ends with that brick wall of a question:  How do we fix it?  Even if we all agreed that the word “heroism” shouldn’t be equated with military service, as Astore’s article calls for, what should we do?  Is problematizing the word, as Hayes and Astore did, enough to create a more complex picture of military service?  Should we consciously change the word?  Come up with a new one?  (Course on military rhetoric, anyone?)


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