The Song “Universal Soldier” Does Make Me Want to Punch A Hippie, Though*
It looks like right-wing blogs gave MSNBC host Chris Hayes a bit of a beating for making what I don’t even think was all that dramatic a statement regarding the language we use to refer to fallen US Servicepersons:
“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.”
Okay—he’s posing this as a question he isn’t even comfortable asking, and he admits he doesn’t even mean to offend anyone at all by asking. And the idea that the language we use to refer to war colors our impression of it and lends it glamour is by no means a new idea. Nonetheless, an opportunity arose to pound on Hayes for the thought-crime of not readily lending the highest encomiums of the English language to the commemorated war dead, and to smear The Left in general as “Probably not Sufficiently Respectful of Our Men and Women in Uniform Dead or Alive” also, too. And so—to the outrage factory! And also, to the “apology store”. (To Hayes’ credit, he gives excellent apology. There’s not a “sorry if anyone was offended” air to it at all. )
The pixelated tone-poem of the internet kerfuffle is probably not the ideal medium for discussion of the attitudes and language we use to discuss war, its consequences, and the multifaceted ways it can be viewed through the media prism. I don’t know if a blog post can adequately cover the distance between the Gettysburg address’ admonition to the living to carry on the fight in the honor of the fallen, and the recent-times questioning of our current wars: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” It has as much to do with the cheapening of our sights and expansion of our vision of what war can accomplish, as it does our ability to confront the complexities of war through a far greater media exposure. We are removed. We are also sometimes ensnared—involved in the question of why and how war is engaged—and the servicemembers are erased in the debate, or used as examples. Their reality is eclipsed.
I don’t know where to go with that—so I’m just going to relate a story about my mom getting arrested.
This isn’t a story told all that much around the family, and it isn’t necessarily all that characteristic of my mom. Actually, my mom is definitely not the “getting arrested” type. She doesn’t even swear properly, and she is the mom of me, and if that doesn’t make one swear, I don’t know what should. But at any rate, she was hauled off of a public bus after an altercation where she bashed in the nose of an anti-war protester. He was pasting up a poster featuring a skeleton in a US military uniform,. My mom expressed that she was offended, as her fiance had recently gone into the Marines (at Uncle Sam’s pointed suggestion). She was thereupon told that her fiance (my dad) would likely die.
And that was when a 19-year old, 5’1” nursing student decided to knock someone’s nose in. It was a deeply personal decision. She thought about that very possibility in a more personal way than that protester did. She did every night. She also thought about her older brother, who also went. My dad’s older brother also served. His brother-in-law (his sister’s then-fiance) served. Maybe a dozen people she could rattle off of her acquaintance from the working class Philadelphia neighborhood they all came from, were directly impacted—wore a uniform, Might be made a hero.
It didn’t matter if she supported the war (she didn’t) or if any of them supported the war (uniformly ambivalent at best). They served because it was what one did, back then. What were they going to do—become college students, or go to France and convert the French to Catholicism? She didn’t disagree that my dad could die—she disagreed with someone saying it to her, as if she didn’t already know that. As she semi-explained—he didn’t have to look like he disapproved of the war, but approved of anyone dying in it to prove his point.
I don’t think she was even fined—I’m not sure how much damage she could do at her size—but the point has been one I’ve turned over and again—in the long run, a soldier who dies for whatever reason, dies, regardless of the meaning of the war, or the nature of the conflict in which he or she loses his or her life. The price paid is the same, whether their eyes were wide open to the motives of the government they served, or whether they were blinded by patriotism. The effect on a spouse or parent or child presented with a folded flag instead of their loved one, alive, is the same. We call them “heroes” for our conscience, and to comfort the families. Calling the fallen “victim” takes away the agency of the soldier to make the choices they made, to call them “martyr” is worse—an attempt to sanctify the death. “Hero” isn’t a perfect word—but it will serve, as far as I am concerned. I’m more alarmed by abuses of the language like “War President” or “stop loss” myself.
Obviously, my dad returned unscathed to, well, among other things, become my dad. He grew out his GI haircut and grew a faceful of fur, and sometimes effected a t-shirt with the Marine Corps emblem with the motto: “Just a job”. He didn’t think of himself as a hero. They warned me off the Air Force when I was being recruited. They taught me that when people say “Freedom isn’t free”—the actual answer is “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”—and maybe that sometimes means not blowing smoke about just what is noble or heroic. It means watching for war-mongering leaders, and war-mongering followers, too.
But like Hayes, I might be wrong.
*Disclaimer—um, yeah. I might be wrong. But jumping on Hayes is just bedwetting from the RW crew, who seem to think anything less than ecstatic enthusiasm for the “fallen heroes” is a smack in the face. Oh no. War was the injury and being less than honest is the insult. I would say.