As noted last night in Campus Question, yesterday conservatives vilified MSNBC’s Chris Hayes for this comment on Sunday’s Up With Chris:

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.

Hayes’ comment and the brief conversation that followed were part of a 45-minute segment that included the history of Memorial Day and interviews with a Marine Corps casualty assistance officer and the mother of a soldier who committed suicide. Yesterday he apologized for his comments about the word “heroes,” writing:

On Sunday, in discussing the uses of the word “hero” to describe those members of the armed forces who have given their lives, I don’t think I lived up to the standards of rigor, respect and empathy for those affected by the issues we discuss that I’ve set for myself. I am deeply sorry for that.

As many have rightly pointed out, it’s very easy for me, a TV host, to opine about the people who fight our wars, having never dodged a bullet or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots. Of course, that is true of the overwhelming majority of our nation’s citizens as a whole. One of the points made during Sunday’s show was just how removed most Americans are from the wars we fight, how small a percentage of our population is asked to shoulder the entire burden and how easy it becomes to never read the names of those who are wounded and fight and die, to not ask questions about the direction of our strategy in Afghanistan, and to assuage our own collective guilt about this disconnect with a pro-forma ritual that we observe briefly before returning to our barbecues.

But 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. And for that I am truly sorry.

In response to a comment that many morally sound Americans agree with Hayes’ discomfort with the word “heroes,” another commenter replied:

If by “morally sound” you mean “worthless cowards” who rise and sleep under the very blanket of freedom our brave men and women in the military provide and then question the way in which they provide it, then, yes. Chris is “morally sound.”

If those words sound familiar, they should. They’re quoted from Aaron Sorkin’s film A Few Good Men:

I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it.

The commenter apparently missed that the character of Col. Nathan Jessup – who gave an unlawful order that caused the death of a Marine and was willing to let two junior enlisted Marines take the blame in order to protect his own career – was hardly a model of heroism or courage. Jack Nicholson brilliantly delivered a cliché …

… and when it comes to heroism and our military, our media conversations are inevitably an exchange of clichés. Is there no room in our media dialogue for the kind of nuance Hayes offered? Quite simply: no, there is not.

That may not seem fair, but this isn’t about fairness. It’s about the reality of human feelings. For veterans and those who lost a loved one in war, the need to believe that loved one’s life was not wasted transcends reason and nuance. Discussions of the sunk cost fallacy have a place in a policy debate, but not in a media conversation about the heroism of the fallen. The word “hero” is not about analysis. It’s about searching for solace amidst emptiness, pain, anger, guilt, and sorrow. We fall back on clichés because they meet emotional needs that reason cannot. The nuance of that must be shared one-to-one and face-to-face, where we can read each others’ eyes and voices, work through misunderstandings, and embrace our shared humanity.

As progressives we must be grounded in Realworldia, and in Realworldia any media discussion of military heroism will become Dueling Clichés: picked over for pro- or anti- talking points. Hayes overestimated the limitations of his medium. To his credit, he recognized that and apologized.

Lesson learned.

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