Pundits, Platitudes, and Patriotism: War Heroes and Their Enemies

On Sunday, MSNBC host Chris Hayes said the following, in a discussion about war, soldiers, and death: "It is, I think, very difficult to talk about the war dead, the fallen, without invoking valor, without invoking the word 'heroes'... I feel uncomfortable about the word 'hero' because it seems to me it is so rhetorically proximate to justification for more war... it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic."

For this, Chris Hayes was used as a convenient punching bag by the same vacuous media commentators who care less about whether America goes to war than they do about being in constant agreement with the conventional wisdom in order to have their own contracts renewed.

Following an uproar, Chris Hayes apologized, saying "in seeking to discuss the civilian-military divide and the social distance between those who fight and those who don't, I ended up reinforcing it, conforming to a stereotype of a removed pundit whose views are not anchored in the very real and very wrenching experience of this long decade of war." But his original statement, though clumsily phrased, was making a point that is A) true, B) important, C) patriotic, and D) controversial enough that the vast majority of pundits never bother making it, because they have no desire to deal with the backlash that inevitably accompanies it.

It is absolutely true that the "hero" rhetoric that is attached to all things related to the U.S. military is used to shut down real debate about the merits of what exactly it is that all those heroes are doing out there. If all soldiers are heroes, then all soldiers are righteous. If all soldiers are righteous, then the soldiers' cause is righteous. The soldiers' cause is war. Therefore the war is righteous. This is one of the oldest tropes in the "Manipulating the Free Press During Wartime" handbook. You need only look back at the profusion of American flag graphics and distinct lack of pointed skepticism that defined the U.S. media in the run up to the Iraq War to know how well this tactic works.

It is easy for a TV network and its pundits to be patriotic. Theirs is a cheap patriotism. It is a patriotism of platitudes and comfortable symbols and cartoonish enemy villains to be opposed. Dissenters are just easy weenies to be picked on in the media schoolyard. Here are some of the thoughtful critiques that a panel of pundits on the Today show had for Chris Hayes' disquisition:

  • "The four of us aren't fighting those wars. So these people are heroes to me." - Nancy Snyderman, patriot.
  • "You don't say this on Memorial Day." - Star Jones, patriot.
  • "This guy is like a – if you've seen him, he looks like a, he looks like a weenie." - Donny Deutsch, non-weenie, and patriot.
  • "I contribute nothing of consequence to this country, yet I reap tremendous financial benefits from it. Therefore I must pay the emptiest sort of lip service to those in the military, and childishly insult anyone who questions the kindergarten version of 'patriotism,' lest the public turn its attention to me," say the terrified, self-serving and ultimately useless pundit class of America, in a single voice.

    Patriotism is not the act of mouthing platitudes about Heroes and God and Country as politicians go and start wars for money and send off young men and women to die. If the media can do anything patriotic, it is to loudly question the many varieties of bullshit that are used to pave the way for public support of wars. The 6,472 Americans who've died in Iraq and Afghanistan might have appreciated that more than being praised as "heroes" by the same members of the media that did nothing to stop them from being killed.

    [Photo: AP]