It’s Memorial Day: Everyone Gets a Trophy!

Memorial DayI remember back in 2012, Chris Hayes got in a boatload of trouble when he tried to discuss Memorial Day. It was one of his greatest moments. He talked about the use of the world “hero” to describe soldiers who died in war. He said, “I feel uncomfortable with the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.”

There is really nothing controversial about what he said. He was, as is his nature, very careful. He wasn’t saying that soldiers weren’t heroes; he was just trying to explain why the word made him uncomfortable. The conservative blogosphere, of course, went after him big time. How dare he question that every army supply clerk wasn’t Hector and Achilles rolled into one?!

Of course, that wasn’t what Hayes was saying at all. But the controversy is entirely typical of the way that conservatives, and to a slightly smaller degree the nation, think about the military. It’s sad because it shows how facile their appreciation is. They don’t actually care about any individual “hero” but rather the very idea of the military. And in that way, the attacks on Chris Hayes make sense, because he was questioning war itself.

But there is another level on which this “every soldier is a hero” business bothers me. It’s very much like “every child is a beautiful snowflake.” If every soldier is a hero then none of them are. All we’ve done is to redefine “hero” to mean any person in the military — even if all they’ve done is spend 20 years doing paper work. (Note: I am not belittling paper work, which can be terrifying.)

What’s most amazing is that this impulse to turn every soldier into a hero (some of whom, remember, are psychopaths) is that it treats them as if they need protecting. They are like the children’s sports leagues where everyone gets a trophy. Now, I’m all for that! Children shouldn’t be turned into professional athletes for the fun of their children.

But it is exactly the conservatives who want 5-year-olds to be taught the importance of “winning” who also think that every soldier is a special snowflake who can’t ever be criticized. It’s ironic. Or it would be if it were about the soldier. But of course, it isn’t. It is rather about exactly what Hayes was just grazing in his comments four years ago: that “every soldier a hero” is really just a pretext for continuous war.

Meanwhile, for the vast majority of Americans, Memorial Day is really just about barbecues and watching sports on television. I can see why people might find my thoughts on the matter of war offensive. But they really are no more offensive than those who don’t treat soldiers as individuals but just rhetorical tokens. And ultimately, the problem (if you choose to see it that way) is that the people of this nation don’t care. For most people, Memorial Day is just another day off work (if they are lucky). For them, “soldier as hero” is the same as yellow ribbons: patriotism bought cheap.

Want to be angry about the mistreatment of the military? Don’t look to me! Look to the apathetic nation and the war mongers who want more dead “heroes.”