Chris Hayes was driving me crazy, because I was beginning to think I’d need to start watching television. Luckily I’ve been saved from that fate, it seems. Hayes’ comments on MSNBC, for which he has now absurdly apologized, were the type of basic honesty — or, better, truth telling as revolutionary act — that was tempting me.
MSNBC is part of a larger corporation that makes more money from war than from infotainment. Phil Donahue learned his lesson, along with Jeff Cohen. Cenk Uygur did too — or perhaps he taught them one. Keith Olbermann didn’t last. Rachel Maddow wants war “reformed” but would never be caught blurting out the sort of honesty that got Hayes into trouble.
Hayes questioned the appropriateness of calling warriors heroes, and of doing so in order to promote more war-making. He was right to do that. This practice has been grotesquely inappropriate for a very long time.
Pericles honored those who had died in war on the side of Athens:
“I have dwelt upon the greatness of Athens because I want to show you that we are contending for a higher prize than those who enjoy none of these privileges, and to establish by manifest proof the merit of these men whom I am now commemorating. Their loftiest praise has been already spoken. For in magnifying the city I have magnified them, and men like them whose virtues made her glorious. And of how few Hellenes can it be said as of them, that their deeds when weighed in the balance have been found equal to their fame! I believe that a death such as theirs has been the true measure of a man’s worth; it may be the first revelation of his virtues, but is at any rate their final seal. For even those who come short in other ways may justly plead the valor with which they have fought for their country; they have blotted out the evil with the good, and have benefited the state more by their public services than they have injured her by their private actions.
“None of these men were enervated by wealth or hesitated to resign the pleasures of life; none of them put off the evil day in the hope, natural to poverty, that a man, though poor, may one day become rich. But, deeming that the punishment of their enemies was sweeter than any of these things, and that they could fall in no nobler cause, they determined at the hazard of their lives to be honorably avenged, and to leave the rest. They resigned to hope their unknown chance of happiness; but in the face of death they resolved to rely upon themselves alone. And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer, rather than to fl y and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.”
Abraham Lincoln honored those who had died in war on the side of the North:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. “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. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Even though presidents don’t say these thing anymore, and if they can help it don’t talk about the dead at all, the same message goes without saying today. Soldiers are praised to the skies, and the part about their risking their lives is understood without being mentioned. Generals are so effusively praised that it’s not uncommon for them to get the impression they run the government. Presidents much prefer being Commander in Chief to being chief executive. The former can be treated almost as a deity, while the latter is a well-known liar and cheat.
But the prestige of the generals and the presidents comes from their closeness to the unknown yet glorious troops. When the bigwigs don’t want their policies questioned, they need merely suggest that such questioning constitutes criticism of the troops or expression of doubt regarding the invincibility of the troops. In fact, wars themselves do very well to associate themselves with soldiers. The soldiers’ glory may all derive from the possibility that they will be killed in a war, but the war itself is only glorious because of the presence of the sainted troops — not actual particular troops, but the abstract heroic givers of the ultimate sacrifice pre-honored by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
As long as the greatest honor one can aspire to is to be shipped off and killed in somebody’s war, there will be wars. President John F. Kennedy wrote in a letter to a friend something he would never have put in a speech: “War will exist until the distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today.” I would tweak that statement a little. It should include those refusing to participate in a war whether or not they are granted the status of “conscientious objector.” And it should include those resisting the war nonviolently outside of the military as well, including by traveling to the expected sites of bombings in order to serve as “human shields.”
When President Barack Obama was given a Nobel Peace Prize and remarked that other people were more deserving, I immediately thought of several. Some of the bravest people I know or have heard of have refused to take part in our current wars or tried to place their bodies into the gears of the war machine. If they enjoyed the same reputation and prestige as the warriors, we would all hear about them. If they were so honored, some of them would be permitted to speak through our television stations and newspapers, and before long war would, indeed, no longer exist.
What Is a Hero?
Let’s look more closely at the myth of military heroism handed down to us by Pericles and Lincoln. Random House defines a hero as follows (and defines heroine the same way, substituting “woman” for “man”):
“1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
“2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child. […]
“4. Classical Mythology.
“a. a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who oft en came to be honored as a divinity.”
Courage or ability. Brave deeds and noble qualities. There is something more here than merely courage and bravery, merely facing up to fear and danger. But what? A hero is regarded as a model or ideal. Clearly someone who bravely jumped out a 20-story window would not meet that definition, even if their bravery was as brave as brave could be. Clearly heroism must require bravery of a sort that people regard as a model for themselves and others. It must include prowess and beneficence. That is, the bravery can’t just be bravery; it must also be good and kind. Jumping out a window does not qualify. The question, then, is whether killing and dying in wars should qualify as good and kind. Nobody doubts that it’s courageous and brave.
If you look up “bravery” in the dictionary, by the way, you’ll find “courage” and “valor.” Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary defines “valor” as “a soldierly compound of vanity, duty, and the gambler’s hope. ‘Why have you halted?’ roared the commander of a division at Chickamauga, who had ordered a charge: ‘move forward, sir, at once.’
‘General,’ said the commander of the delinquent brigade, ‘I am persuaded that any further display of valor by my troops will bring them into collision with the enemy.’”
But would such valor be good and kind or destructive and foolhardy? Bierce had himself been a Union soldier at Chickamauga and had come away disgusted. Many years later, when it had become possible to publish stories about the Civil War that didn’t glow with the holy glory of militarism, Bierce published a story called “Chickamauga” in 1889 in the San Francisco Examiner that makes participating in such a battle appear the most grotesquely evil and horrifying deed one could ever do. Many soldiers have since told similar tales.
It’s curious that war, something consistently recounted as ugly and horrible, should qualify its participants for glory. Of course, the glory doesn’t last. Mentally disturbed veterans are kicked aside in our society. In fact, in dozens of cases documented between 2007 and 2010, soldiers who had been deemed physically and psychologically fit and welcomed into the military, performed “honorably,” and had no recorded history of psychological problems. Then, upon being wounded, the same formerly healthy soldiers were diagnosed with a pre-existing personality disorder, discharged, and denied treatment for their wounds. One soldier was locked in a closet until he agreed to sign a statement that he had a pre-existing disorder — a procedure the Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called “torture.”
Active duty troops, the real ones, are not treated by the military or society with particular reverence or respect. But the mythical, generic “troop” is a secular saint purely because of his or her willingness to rush off and die in the very same sort of mindless murderous orgy that ants regularly engage in. Yes, ants. Those teeny little pests with brains the size of…well, the size of something smaller than an ant: they wage war. And they’re better at it than we are.
Are Ants Heroes Too?
Ants wage long and complex wars with extensive organization and unmatched determination, or what we might call “valor.” They are absolutely loyal to the cause in a way that no patriotic humans can match: “It’d be like having an American flag tattooed to you at birth,” ecologist and photojournalist Mark Moffett told Wired magazine. Ants will kill other ants without flinching. Ants will make the “ultimate sacrifice” with no hesitation. Ants will proceed with their mission rather than stop to help a wounded warrior.
The ants who go to the front, where they kill and die first, are the smallest and weakest ones. They are sacrificed as part of a winning strategy. “In some ant armies, there can be millions of expendable troops sweeping forward in a dense swarm that’s up to 100 feet wide.” In one of Moffett’s photos, which shows “the marauder ant in Malaysia, several of the weak ants are being sliced in half by a larger enemy termite with black, scissor-like jaws.” What would Pericles say at their funeral?
“According to Moffett, we might actually learn a thing or two from how ants wage war. For one, ant armies operate with precise organization despite a lack of central command.” And no wars would be complete without some lying: “Like humans, ants can try to outwit foes with cheats and lies.” In another photo, “two ants face off in an effort to prove their superiority — which, in this ant species, is designated by physical height. But the wily ant on the right is standing on a pebble to gain a solid inch over his nemesis.” Would Honest Abe approve?
In fact, ants are such dedicated warriors that they can even fight civil wars that make that little skirmish between the North and South look like touch football. A parasitic wasp, Ichneumon eumerus, can dose an ant nest with a chemical secretion that causes the ants to fight a civil war, half the nest against the other half. Imagine if we had such a drug for humans, a sort of a prescription-strength Fox News. If we dosed the nation, would all the resulting warriors be heroes or just half of them? Are the ants heroes? And if they are not, is it because of what they are doing or purely because of what they are thinking about what they are doing? And what if the drug makes them think they are risking their lives for the benefit of future life on earth or to keep the anthill safe for democracy?
Soldiers are generally lied to, as the whole society is lied to, and — in addition — as only military recruiters can lie to you. Soldiers often believe they are on a noble mission. And they can be very brave. But so can police officers and fire fighters in quite similar ways, for worthwhile ends but much less glory and hoo-ha. What is the good of being courageous for a destructive project? If you mistakenly believe you are doing something valuable, your bravery might — I think — be tragic. And it might be bravery worth emulating in other circumstances. But you yourself would hardly be a model or an ideal. Your actions would not have been good and kind. In fact, in a common but completely nonsensical pattern of speech, you could end up being denounced as a “coward.”
When terrorists flew airplanes into buildings on September 11, 2001, they may have been cruel, murderous, sick, despicable, criminal, insane, or bloodthirsty, but what they were usually called on U.S. television was “cowards.” It was hard not to be struck, in fact, by their bravery, which is probably why so many commentators instantly reached for the opposite description. “Bravery” is understood to be a good thing, so mass murder can’t be bravery, so therefore it was cowardice. I’m guessing this was the thought process. One television host didn’t play along.
“We have been the cowards,” said Bill Maher, agreeing with a guest who had said the 9-11 murderers were not cowards. “Lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly. You’re right.” Maher was not defending the murders. He was merely defending the English language. He lost his job anyway.
The problem that I think Maher identified is that we’ve glorified bravery for its own sake without stopping to realize that we don’t really mean that. The drill sergeant means it. The military wants soldiers as brave as ants, soldiers who will follow orders, even orders likely to get them killed, without stopping to think anything over for themselves, without pausing for even a second to wonder whether the orders are admirable or evil. We’d be lost without bravery. We need it to confront all kinds of unavoidable dangers, but mindless bravery is useless or worse, and certainly not heroic. What we need is something more like honor. Our model and ideal person should be someone who is willing to take risks when required for what he or she has carefully determined to be a good means to a good end. Our goal should not be embarrassing the rest of the world’s primates, even violent chimpanzees, through our mindless imitation of little bugs. “The ‘heroes,’” wrote Norman Thomas,
“whether of the victorious or the vanquished nation, have been disciplined in the acceptance of violence and a kind of blind obedience to leaders. In war there is no choice between complete obedience and mutiny. Yet a decent civilization depends on the capacity of men [and women] to govern themselves by processes under which loyalty is consistent with constructive criticism.”
There are good things about soldiering: courage and selflessness; group solidarity, sacrifice, and support for one’s buddies, and — at least in one’s imagination — for the greater world; physical and mental challenges; and adrenaline. But the whole endeavor brings out the best for the worst by using the noblest traits of character to serve the vilest ends. Other aspects of military life are obedience, cruelty, vengefulness, sadism, racism, fear, terror, injury, trauma, anguish, and death. And the greatest of these is the obedience, because it can lead to all the others. The military conditions its recruits to believe that obedience is part of trust, and that by trusting superiors you can receive proper preparation, perform better as a unit, and stay safe. “Let go of that rope now!” and someone catches you. At least in training. Someone is screaming one inch from your nose: “I’ll wipe the floor with your sorry ass, soldier!” Yet you survive. At least in training.
Following orders in a war, and facing enemies that want you dead, actually tends to get you killed, even if you’ve been conditioned to behave as if it didn’t. It still will. And your loved ones will be devastated. But the military will roll right along without you, having put a little more cash into the pockets of weapons makers, and having made millions of people a little more likely to join anti-American terrorist groups. And if your modern-day soldier job is to blast distant strangers to bits without directly risking your own life at all, don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to live peacefully with what you’ve done, or that anybody’s going to think you’re a hero. That’s not heroic; it’s neither brave nor good, much less both.