MSNBC host Chris Hayes unleashed a firestorm of controversy and discussion with his Memorial Day weekend remarks about America's fallen soldiers and his reticence to refer to them as "heroes" because it's "rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war." Conservative bloggers heaped criticism on the weekend talk host and "Chris Hayes" was the number one Google search Tuesday morning.
On Monday, Hayes walked back his statement, saying:
"On Sunday, in discussing the uses of the word "hero" to describe those members of the armed forces who have given their lives, I don't think I lived up to the standards of rigor, respect and empathy for those affected by the issues we discuss that I've set for myself. I am deeply sorry for that."
The controversy highlights an important issue Americans have struggled with since the Vietnam War: separating our views toward Washington's foreign policy-- which is determined by legislators, bureaucrats, and high-ranking military and intelligence officials-- from our views toward the troops that go into harm's way in order to execute that foreign policy.
The backlash against Chris Hayes has been so strong because conservatives, to their credit, cannot comprehend the conflation of broader US foreign policy with the valor of the brave men and women that have volunteered to execute that foreign policy. Hayes, to be fair, did seem to parse these issues in his segment, saying: "...obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism: hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers and things like that," but he struggled to articulate his discomfort with categorically calling every fallen soldier a hero, saying the way the word is marshaled can be "problematic."
Certainly not every soldier is heroic, and even Hayes' conservative critics should be able to agree with that. It's unlikely that many of them would consider the soldier who recently massacred civilians-- including children-- on a killing spree, a hero. Neither would most of Hayes' critics consider Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army officer who murdered 13 fellow soldiers in the infamous Fort Hood shooting a hero. Clearly then, simply wearing the uniform and even serving in wartime does not a hero make.
Unlike extreme partisans, who are fascinated with labels and sweeping categorizations, independents should be able to discern that some soldiers truly are heroes and others aren't. Independents should also be able to discern that some soldiers can be truly heroic even while working within a broader foreign policy agenda that is less than laudable or sensible. Opposition to the foreign policy doesn't necessitate opposition to the troops. Unfortunately, most of Hayes' critics seem unable to infer from that premise that support for the troops doesn't necessitate support for the foreign policy.
For all their indignation at Hayes' remarks as disrespectful toward the troops, it seems that conservatives aren't willing to take their heroes seriously enough or treat them well enough to decisively oppose a foreign policy that puts them in harm's way for no tangible benefit to America's national defense interests. These young men and women volunteered to keep their country safe. With most of Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, handily dispatched, now many of them are disillusioned as they fight a foreign, ethnic civil war in Afghanistan between the new government and Pashtun insurgents.
Meanwhile, these soldiers who thought they were going to be keeping America safe, are patrolling Afghanistan on your tax dollar to keep poppy fields safe for the drug trade. Rather than uncritical support for Washington's foreign policy, conservatives who really consider the troops heroes should be outraged when it puts troops in harm's way for such dubious, even nefarious objectives. All Chris Hayes did was question whether they should be called heroes. Washington is actually mistreating them and using them as expendable fodder for policy objectives that have nothing to do with keeping America safe. Most Americans would find this questionable-if only Hayes' critics would draw as much attention to these abuses as they have to Chris Hayes. The toll it's taken on the troops is harrowing.
The death toll, suicide rates, PTSD rates, rates of alcoholism, and rates of divorce are all at record highs for active duty soldiers in the Bush-Obama era of open-ended, interventionist, nation-building warfare. How can conservatives, who consider these men and women to be heroes, remain so silent and uncritical in the face of such overwhelming harm to our nation's troops as a result of a foreign policy many of them don't understand and no longer agree with? Is this how a nation treats its heroes?
There can be no mistaking that the troops want to come home from these wars. In 2008, the two presidential candidates to receive the most donations from active duty military were Barack Obama, who was perceived as a radical foreign policy reformer, and Ron Paul, the Republican Party's most outspoken opponent of Bush-era foreign policy and an advocate of an immediate withdrawal of troops from the Middle East. Again in the 2012 election cycle, the antiwar Ron Paul has received more active duty military donations than any other candidate, including more than every other GOP presidential candidate combined. As of the most recent FEC data, Ron Paul's top three contributors by employer are still the US Army, US Air Force, and US Navy.
The message from the troops is resounding: they want a president who will bring them home. But primary results throughout the country this year reveal that those who criticized Chris Hayes for not supporting the troops are spokespeople for a conservative movement that doesn't seem to notice or care who the troops themselves support. If all the sanctimony and indignation over Hayes' remarks is genuine, then conservatives should stand up and criticize policymakers in Washington who don't treat the troops like heroes, but like pawns in a geopolitical game of imperialism and interventionism.
Some Democrats, like those who watch Chris Hayes on MSNBC, might still need to learn that it's possible to oppose the wars without opposing the troops. It would seem that many Republicans still need to learn that it's possible to support the troops without supporting the wars. Independents, who favor a speedier withdrawal from Afghanistan at a higher rate than Democrats and Republicans, should reiterate this message as often as they can and advocate for a foreign policy that keeps America safe while treating its military volunteers well by only calling on them when a clear national defense interest is at stake, giving them clear objectives, and winning swiftly and decisively so they can come home to a hero's welcome.
"History teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap." -Ronald Reagan "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity." -Dwight D. Eisenhower "War...is as much a punishment to the punisher as to the sufferer." -Thomas Jefferson