"A hero cannot be a hero unless in a heroic world." -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
Like most Americans, I took advantage of the three-day Memorial Day holiday to sleep a little later than normal, relax with my family, make a barbeque, and enjoy the time off.
Some Americans took time out of their weekend activities and attended Memorial Day services held throughout the country. President Obama started his day dining with Gold Star families who lost loved ones in battle, then went to the Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The president then went to the Vietnam War Memorial, where he noted the 50th anniversary of that unpopular war -- and the reprehensible treatment showed by most Americans to returning soldiers of that era. "It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened," Obama said.
Despite the words, despite the ceremonies, despite the proper gratitude of most Americans for veterans and soldiers in our Armed Forces on both Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I question whether in this day and age, the lesson of the mistreatment of Vietnam War vets and the role of citizen soldier in our history and our future -- and in guaranteeing my freedom to write this article -- are in fact truly understood by some influential analysts in the mainstream media and academia.
On Sunday, MSNBC's Chris Hayes, who hosts the "Up" program and writes for the uber liberal publication The Nation, called into question calling soldiers killed in action in "unjust" wars like Iraq and Afghanistan "heroes." He said:
"I think it's interesting because I think it is very difficult to talk about the war dead and the fallen without invoking valor, without invoking the words 'heroes.' Why do I feel so [uncomfortable] about the word 'hero'? I feel comfortable -- uncomfortable -- about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, I don't want to obviously desecrate or disrespect the 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."
No it's not akin to the treatment of Vietnam veterans, but Hayes' ambiguity about seeing soldiers killed in battle as heroic is unsettling nonetheless. As President Obama correctly observed, one of the lessons of the Vietnam War that is now recognized 50 years later is that the question of whether the conduct of a war is "justified," or "popular," or "moral" should never discount the commitment, service, and for some, the ultimate sacrifice of those who served this county.
Being anti-war does not mean that you still can't value the mission of the soldiers as the guardians of our liberties and our way of life-or their status as "heroes," particularly those who fought and died.
Even though he apologized later, Hayes' provocative statement was itself "problematic." It showed a lack of appreciation for the role of the American citizen soldier in our society.
It was this lack of understanding that wrongfully permeated the thinking of too many Americans during the Vietnam War and still captures the still too powerful liberal Upper East Side anti-war mentality that questions in the name of political correctness every civilian casualty in battle and limits our country's ability to prosecute war to ultimate victory.
U.S. servicemen and women are strictly accorded the responsibility of protecting our country and way of life without question, without pause, and without a right to question their missions in those wars. They don't have a choice to judge the intelligence, the righteousness, or the morality of the fight they are fighting. They just go and fight -- at great sacrifice to themselves and their families.
A hero can be defined not only as an illustrious warrior like Hayes believes, but also as a person admired for his or her achievements and noble qualities.
A U.S. serviceman or woman serving in the armed forces forfeits everything, including possibly his or her life to serve the United States. That great sacrifice -- that many Americans never make -- alone, is a noble achievement that can characterize any veteran as a hero.
Memorial Day is indeed a day of appreciation of American heroes.
This op-ed appeared in the Sun Sentinel on May 31, 2012
Steven Kurlander's columns appear every Thursday in the Sun Sentinel and every Friday in the Florida Voices. Follow him on Facebook and via his blog Kurly's Kommentary on www.stevenkurlander.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.