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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Who Are Our Heroes?

As part of a discussion about Memorial Day, MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes recently posed the question whether we should call all of our war dead heroes? And the next day he apologized.

The recent Memorial Day Holiday started me thinking about my Dad, a World War II veteran. He dodged bullets in France and Germany to string communications cables to the front lines. My Dad seldom spoke of that war. The last thing he wanted to be called was a hero.

On Sunday Hayes said he was a little uncomfortable calling all our fallen soldiers heroes. Hayes asked the question whether applying words like “hero” to all our dead soldiers might be a way to justify wars. He emphasized he was not trying to diminish the praise our living and dead veterans were entitled to. Hayes’ comments were very moderate. And not at all disrespectful. Listen to his comments if you haven't heard them.

Nonetheless, Hayes caught enough criticism he had to issue an apology.  Even his apology caused outrage.

Asking whether all our dead soldiers are heroes reminds me of the Bogey line, “Yesterday they were just two German couriers. Today they are the honored dead.”

No, I am not calling anyone a Nazi by using Bogey’s quote, even though he refers to two Germans during Hitler’s Third Reich. And granted Bogart starts out in “Casablanca” as the ultimate cynic. But sometimes even cynics hit upon the truth.

I recently finished reading “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” by Erick Larson.” Maybe that is why I have the lunacy of the Nazis on my brain. And again, I am not calling anyone but actual Nazis Nazis.

Larson’s heavily-researched book about pre-WW2 Nazi Germany focuses on the initial blindness and naïveté of William E. Dodd, the American ambassador and his daughter Margaret, the Paris Hilton of her day. Margaret enjoyed the Nazi social scene as she flirted and cavorted with Nazis, communists, and it appears anything attractive and witty in pants. There is a possibility that Margaret eventually did a little spying for the Russians. Maybe I owe Paris or Margaret an apology for my glib comparison.

In any event, Papa Dodd thought he could talk sense into Hitler and his cohorts. To his and his daughter’s credit, the glamour of the Nazis eventually lost its gleam. The Ambassador sent out alarms about what was going on in Germany.

But as a reader with 20/20 hindsight I cringe at each apology Dodd and other diplomats made. Certainly for the escalating persecution of the Jews. Also for the restrictions of newspapers that disagreed with the growing wave of nationalism. And for the suppression of dissent and criticism.

WW II often is used as the classic example of the “just war,” the Nazis as the embodiment of evil. Yet how much have we learned about the dangers of nationalism, the importance of free speech and the ability to question if every time someone questions they have to immediately apologize?

Do we need to cast every war a “just war”? Do we need to call every dead soldier a hero? Can we not talk about how much of our terminology is propaganda?

If history teaches us anything about war it should be that not all wars are necessary or just. And that governments use propaganda, sometimes overt and other times subtle, to promote their agendas, including wars.

Propaganda can come in the form of hiding the facts or the body counts, stifling criticism, and using terminology that stirs patriotic feelings. To name just a few examples: we certainly saw that during Vietnam and during the search for WMD in the Gulf War.

There is a thin line between honest patriotism and dangerous nationalism. Our country, no country, is always right. The protection against sliding into blind nationalism is our celebration and use of the right of free speech.

But back to those who should be called heroes. There are many heroes: serving or having served in the armed forces; also in police and fire departments. Forest rangers, teachers and moms and dads can be heroes. The Mom who recently lost both legs covering her children with her body to protect them from the tornado was a hero in most anyone's terminology.

You could call my Dad, like many of the soldiers who survive war, carrying physical or psychological wounds of the horrors of war until he died, heroes. You can call all our military, alive or dead, heroes. But you also should be able to disagree with that term.

Chris Hayes has disrespected no one by questioning who are our heroes. And I intend no disrespect. But maybe, as my Dad might have said, you could say sometimes our war dead are dead, to paraphrase Jacques Brel, “because they couldn’t help it.” We put them into harm’s way. Sometimes when there was another path. My Dad would have called the peacemakers heroes. And so do I.

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