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Toward a rational debate over war and peace


UPDATE 5/29 9:00amHayes has apologized for the comments.

Comments Sunday by Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC's Up With Chris, about the use of the term "heroes" as applied to U.S. service-members killed in action have triggered criticism in some right-leaning corners of the blogosphere.

Hayes is more than capable of responding for himself, and on Twitter, he's urged people to watch the full segment from Sunday's show—a detailed discussion of the origins of the holiday—before judging whether it was insufficiently respectful toward fallen members of the military. But for those who won't, it's worth being clear about the point he was making.

Here are the comments in question:

I think it is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the words "heroes." And why do I feel so [un]comfortable about the word "hero"?  I feel comfortable, ah, uncomfortable, about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. 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: 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.   

Hayes makes clear that he's objecting to the political use of the term "heroes," not denigrating members of the military. His point—and it's one that's likely pretty widely shared among Americans who think military force plays too large a role in our national-security policy—is that war supporters have used the respect and gratitude that our service-members deserve as weapons to shut down crucial debate about the pros and cons of military action.

this typical post on the website of the conservative Heritage Foundation

A more common weapon in that same rhetorical arsenal is the admonition to "support the troops," which over the last decade has been used by war backers to bolster public support for government policies they favor. How did President Bush seek to beat back efforts by Congress to block him from pouring more resources into Iraq in 2007? He accused lawmakers of “debating bills that undercut the troops.” Vice President Cheney echoed that line, charging that Democrats were working to "undercut General Petraeus and the troops."

And Bush made the argument more explicitly that same year. "Our men and women in uniform risk their lives to carry out our plan to support this new democracy and to secure Baghdad," he said. "And wherever members may stand on my decision, we have a solemn responsibility to give our troops the resources and the flexibility they need to prevail."

It's rhetorical tactics like those, it seems clear, that Hayes was identifying as problematic. No one wants to undercut the troops, which is why they can be so effective. But as much as we respect and honor individual service-members, government decisions about war and peace shouldn't be determined solely by the operational needs of the military. Bush was wrong about his "solemn responsibility"—it wasn't to give the troops the resources they need to prevail, but rather, to make a sober assessment about whether committing more money and lives to Iraq served the national interest.

We're a long way from having a foreign policy that's driven by that kind of rational consideration. But the cynical use by war supporters of terms like "heroes" and concepts like support for the troops, Hayes was suggesting, makes it harder to get there.

And since accusations of disrespect are getting thrown around, it's worth pointing out that showing actual respect for our service-members ought to involve fighting to make sure that they're taken care of when they return home. That's something that many war supporters don't seem nearly as interested in.