Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hayes, Heroes, and Such

This weekend MSNBC's and The Nation's Chris Hayes set of a very minor firestorm for his comments questioning aspects of America's public discourse. It was a memorial day show, and as such Hayes and a panel discussed different issues related to the holiday in question. Now I haven't watched Hayes show often (I don't watch TV in general), just a clip here and there, but my initial impression is that his show might be one of the only decent ones featured on MSNBC. In response to the complaints and in defense of his friend, Glenn Greenwald commented over twitter appropriately "Questioning-rather than bolstering-orthodoxies is inherently controversial. That's what makes Chris Hayes' show so rare for TV-& so valuable." For instance not only did he mention the sadness of the first American death in Afghanistan, but also the first civilian death (an 11 year girl) in the conflict. Moreover he has also confronted the issue of drone use in foreign policy in a critical manner. His show at least appears to discuss important issues in a critical, questioning manner that often aren't discussed much. However one issue you aren't supposed to raise however is whether we use the words "heroes," "valor," and so on in a problematic matter when discussion our past and present men and women in the United States Military! Here is what Haye's 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 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."

Clearly the words of an effete communist! At any rate the usual suspects responded with a slew of silly ad hominems. Chris then issued an apology,  for no good reason whatsoever. He simply had nothing to apologize for. He was certainly empathetic enough (commending genuine heroism, thanking a Marine Causality officer for his service, being careful about not offending families of the fallen, considering a rebuttal to his statement), and at the very least lived up to the rigor of mainstream news sources! Moreover he reasonably displayed discomfort one of the axiomatic assumptions of American discourse, something which should be welcomed. Chris even mentioned he could be wrong!

At any rate, in this post I want to dissect what Chris Hayes said, and question what the conditions must be met in order for one to be heroic, and what kind of good it might be to join the military.

Instrumental versus Intrinsic Bads and Goods
There was a central confusion in the response to Chris Hayes involving the ever crucial distinction between intrinsic and instrumental (OR extrinsic) bads and goods. An intrinsic good is good as an end in itself; intrinsic bad is bad as and end in itself. For example pleasure is an intrinsic good, it's good for it's sake, not for other things which it gets you. Pain is an intrinsic bad, you don't seek pain for it's self (even masochists seek pain for pleasure). An instrumental good is good only insofar as it brings about other goods. Instrumental goods are good because they cause other good things to happen. So although pain may be intrinsically bad, many people view it as an instrumental good. You may have to go through severe pain in order to become stronger (no pain, no gain!). So a thing can have both intrinsic and instrumental properties.

With this distinction in mind we can see that Hayes is putting forth the idea that constantly implying that past and present members of the armed forces are heroes is an instrumental bad. It's not bad in and of itself to call some person a heroes (for as Hayes specifically mentioned some members of the military obviously were heroes) but constantly referring to the fallen as heroes is bad instrumentally because it is used as a tool for more wars (at least some of which are bad). Now some critics took him as saying "none of the war dead should be called heroes" if they had bothered to listen to his statement you will see that this is a gross caricature of Haye's suggestion. But I think the majority took him as arguing against the thesis: that there is something intrinsically good about joining the military. That is someone who makes the sacrifices and serves their country in such a manner deserves to be commended for what they have done is good and heroic for as and end in itself. This however is a mistaken view, in this post I shall argue that there is nothing intrinsically good about being a member of the armed forces. At least that it isn't sufficient condition for heroism.

Heroism and Justification for War
But before confronting this issue about intrinsic heriocs, lets return to comprehending the how instrumental constantly commending fallen heroes may be. Lets briefly consider reasons for thinking it's an instrumental good or bad. For one it brings about the good of reverence for our ancestors, our comrades if you will. It brings consolation to some of the families. Further it may influence others to join the military, and insofar as that is a good thing commending the fallen is as well. Of course all these premises could be questioned. What reasons could there be for thinking constantly commending the war dead is instrumentally bad? One might reverse the last point for thinking it is good and suppose that joining the military is bad, and insofar as commending the fallen leads others to join the military it is a bad (controversial no doubt). Further some of the dead may not actually be heroes, hence it is wrong to say such. Hayes of course focuses on how accenting the heroics of the war dead leads to the justification of future wars. And since war in general is a bad, so accenting the valor of the fallen is an instrumental bad.

Which position is more reasonable? I am not so sure, at the very least one should be skeptical of the thesis that we ought to always commend the war dead. I take it that this skepticism will fully support Hayes, and the idea that an apology was unnecessary. More thoughts on how we ought to discuss heroism are considered at the end of the post.

The Conditions for Intrinsic Heroism
What makes someone a war hero? Well obviously one necessary condition for that title is that one be involved in a war. But of course that isn't sufficient, it isn't enough, for being deemed a war hero. Several more detailed accounts can be offered.

Patriotic Account for the Heroism of the Armed Forces
One might be tempted toward a very nation based account of war heroism. It may run as follows:
A person is a war hero insofar as they have served and sacrificed for their country

Hence insofar as a person has sacrificed their interests and done hard work in the armed forces they are a hero. What is important about this account is what it leaves out. For instance it isn't necessary that one serve in a just war or a war which served the interests of a nation state in question. This is a sentiment that is commonly expressed, at least in the comment sections of several reports of this discussion. Comments such as "it doesn't matter whether the war was right, what matters is that they died for their country." This exemplifies the sentiment of (what I have called) the Patriotic Account; serving and sacrificing for one's country is intrinsically good.

But this claim entails absurd implications. Under this framework the Japanese Bomber's in Pearl Harbor are heroes. So are the American Soldiers who raped and murdered victims in the Vietnam War. So at least some account of moral behavior has to be included. And if morality is to be included in the assessment of potential heroes, then an obviously relevant moral factor is the justness of their cause. So unless one is tempted to bite the bullet and allow that those who sacrificed in order to commit murder, rape, and genocide are in some way heroes the morality of the war is relevant. Of course this is not to say that no soldiers are heroes. Nor that even the solders who aren't perhaps heroes by virtue of their cause don't have any exemplary virtues. But this argument is sufficient to show that the Patriotic Account is mistaken.

Just War Account for the Heroism of the Armed Forces

Here then is another account for the appropriate conditions of heroism, call it the Just War Account:

A person is a hero if these conditions are met (a) they have served and sacrificed for their country and (b) they have done so in a just war

So although there is nothing heroic about serving in the military, all by itself, there is indeed something heroic about sacrificing for a just cause. There is an intrinsic good in serving one's country for a just cause, not just the instrumental good obtained from the ends of a just cause.

An objection is in order. In many cases it seems as though those in the armed forces are deceived or misinformed into thinking they were involved in a just war. So although they had the right intentions and reasonably thought they were in a just war, they were in fact were not. The person may have been brainwashed, simply tricked, or perhaps those commanding the war were mistaken.This appears intuitively unfair to call military member A who reasonably served in a just war that was in fact just a hero, whereas military member B who reasonably serves in an unjust war isn't deemed a hero. In both cases A and B were being reasonable, yet B isn't called a hero because of forces out of her knowledge and control. What should we do in cases like these?

I am honestly am not so sure. I don't know what to say about cases like these, other then that we can decrease them. If society stresses the importance of fighting in a just war, education and thought on what such a war would look like, and holds the government accountable we can decrease the numbers of those non-culpable persons fighting in unjust wars, like member B.

The Direction of Future Discussion
Thus ends my thoughts. We have found that there is nothing heroic in serving in the armed forces, all by itself. However the view that a hero is made when serving in the military under a just war faces a serious problem. Perhaps we should say that the conditions for heroism are sacrifice and the reasonable belief that they are fighting for a just cause. What then do we say about indoctrinated warriors? Should we call the suicide bomber who sacrifices all under the influence of religion and propaganda from which there is no escape a hero? It seems we should rather respond with empathy and sadness, to such a case instead of praise. But maybe I am wrong about that.

At any rate the discussion it seems should (a) become less emotionally charged (b) stress the important condition of a heroism as being involved in a just war (or at least reasonably believing that is the case) (c) stress the importance of education, knowledge, and thought on just war theory (and morality in general) and (d) stray from the standard that all fallen military members are heroes. Though many may be, it's no more credible to say all members of the armed forces are heroes, then it is to say no members of the armed forces are heroes. Perhaps we could change the trend by promoting specific acts of heroism, as opposed to constantly commending troops in general (perhaps "support some of our troops: bumper stickers would take off). With these points in mind what Chris Hayes brought up on his show was actually praiseworthy itself!

I hope that this post provides at least  minimal grounds for progress, and has not been hurtful towards anyone.

This article by Conor Friedersdorf does well in highlighting the silliness of  Haye's Critics (some of them that is, there are probably some non-silly criticis) and This short read by Peter Beinart isn't bad either.

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