The almost reflexive designation of anyone who dies in battle as a “hero” has always grated on me. The slippery definition of the word is one problem. A bigger one is the way, intentionally or not, assertions of personal heroism burnish the cause, even if the war in question is unjustified or foolish.

Thanks to The Nation‘s Chris Hayes and the online world that pointed me to a segment on his late-night MSNBC show, I finally feel less alone with these thoughts. Imagine – an intelligent discussion of the use the word “hero.” Actually occurring. On television. Hayes, a bespectacled reporter who (fortunately or un-) looks very much the part of the liberal intellectual, opined thus:

“It is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the word hero. Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word hero? I feel uncomfortable with the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. And I obviously don’t want to desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that has fallen. Obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is tremendous heroism. You know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers, things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that’s problematic, but maybe I’m wrong about that.”

Hayes himself then articulated an opposing argument:

“The argument on the other side of that is, we don’t have a draft. This is voluntary. This is someone making a decision to take on a certain risk of that. And they’re taking it on because they’re bound to all of us through this social contract, through this democratic process of self-governance in which we decide collectively that we’re going to go to war…And if the word hero is not right, there’s something about it that’s noble, right?”

Naturally, a batch of right-wing media blowhards manufactured a controversy over these carefully phrased points made by Hayes on the eve of Memorial Day. The egregiously false accusations found in responses by the likes of’s Kurt Schlichter and a clueless person by the name of Warner Todd Huston at Wizbang – prime examples of ignoring what was actually said and flying off the handle just to cause a meaningless tempest – were ably summed up and refuted by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

But why did the comments of Hayes and his panel of guests please me so? Well, my discomfort in this matter comes not only from the word “hero” but also from the assumption that honor and some kind of valor inhere by default in military service. Hayes noted that because the U.S. military is all-volunteer, an element of nobility goes into any enlistment, yet a sense of duty or national pride is by no means the only motivator for signing up. For many, economic reasons are important, even primary. Some enlist to follow a family tradition of service. For others it’s the simplest possible resolution to the complexities of an indecisive youth.

None of this takes away from any courageous or noble behavior that ensues, but the mere act of joining the military does not necessarily make a person extraordinary, any more than dying in combat necessarily makes one a hero. Fundamentally, this isn’t (mainly) about words. It’s about patriotic duty and personal responsibility, morality and honor, war and peace, life and death. We ought to be able to discuss these things thoughtfully, on the air or off.