May 29th, 2012
09:57 AM ET

What makes a soldier a hero? MSNBC host's remarks spark outrage

What makes someone a hero?

It seems like it's a simple question, but MSNBC host Chris Hayes caused a firestorm when he said on Memorial Day weekend that he was uncomfortable calling people heroes just because they served in the military.

"Why do I feel so uncomfortable about the word 'hero'? I feel uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war," Hayes said Sunday on MSNBC. "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, you know, 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' remarks immediately sparked a backlash, with some saying it was inappropriate to say such things about those putting their lives on the line to fight for their country.

Hayes issued an apology Monday, saying he understood why people were angry that someone who had never served or dealt with the cost of wars would make such a statement. His apology reads:

"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."

Hayes' remarks beg the question: Who exactly is a hero? We'd like to hear from you.  We'd like you to sound off in the comments below or hit the button below to send a video comment to iReport. Do you think Hayes was out of line in his comments? Do you understand what he was saying?

Must you have served in combat to be a hero? Does enlisting alone make you one? Should that word be reserved for the military? Or does it apply to people who put themselves above others?

soundoff (1,234 Responses)
  1. GENGREY

    Hero's are simply those who at great peril to themselves or their very lives choose to ignore danger and almost certain injury to save the life of another. Hero's exist in the moment when a primal decision is made to act singularly and without any thought of compensation to save another, or a group of people, or even an animal. Hero's do not have to carry guns, have a day dedicated to them, or march in straight lines. The fact is that you can serve multiple tours in wars and never be a hero for a minute. Yet by the same token you can be walking down the street, broke, and jobless and become a true hero by performing a truly selfless act in an instant of compassion to help or save another. I honor our veterans, and many of them have performed heroic acts. But then again many of them have not. Being a hero is a state of selflessness and overwhelming instinct that is simply missing from the repertoir of most peoples inner selves.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  2. LineInTheSand

    Chris, I'd say you were spot on but that would be 'rhetorically proximate' to being stupid.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  3. OPEN400

    This military industrial complex is so dominant in our lives that we are never permitted to question it even in this small capacity. This is why we can not have an intelligent non-emotional discussion about our bloated military budget.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
    • M-man

      Perfectly stated. They are invested in having the rest of us as viewing them all as 'heroes'. All while the $700 Billion spent on defense yearly drags us into more and more debt.

      May 29, 2012 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  4. abe

    The word hero is so overused it is trite and cliche.

    Throwing it around so easy diminishes the meaning.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  5. steve

    Hayes is a coward and should be fired from msnbc. Who is that little idiot to judge anyone who is defending his pathetic life.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Who did he judge exactly?

      May 29, 2012 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
    • rxlawdude

      And who are you to judge, Steve?

      May 29, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike D

      Our military has not "defended" us since WWII. Everyone in uniform is not automatically a "hero".

      May 29, 2012 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Just Saying

      As opposed to politicians of both parties who hide behind cowardice with "that's not the language I would use" or not challenge ugly, destructive testimonials about adversaries at events, Hayes took complete and thorough responsibility for an ill-informed remark. It would add to the general tone of conversation in this country if, even an apology, was not leaped upon to score partisan points...

      May 29, 2012 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
    • lmao@u

      there are some ppl who deserve the term"hero"thrusted on them,but just cause you wear a military camo is not one of them,in many eyes,that one soldier who killed all those babies and women in the night massacre a couple months ago,in afganastan would be looked at as a hero,just cause he is military.which in my eyes dosent represent what a hero is.every one like to come out and be like walk a mile in there shoes,your not ducking gun fire and so forth,and there fighting for "our freedoms"i really hate that one,"fighting for our freedoms"noooo they are fighting for the people in d.c who believe war is the answer to everything,and with the right spin doctors alot of ppl who cant think for their self buy it...now ppl after reading this will be like your unamerican,love it or leave it,what about 9/11....what about you look at some books before you judge,because ppl arent as close minded as yourself.peace

      May 29, 2012 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Jim in PA

      Yeah, but if he was a veteran you'd have to call him a hero.

      May 29, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
    • jim

      Who is defending his life? The troops in Afghanistan? Don't make me laugh!

      May 29, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Craig Doherty

    As someone who has served in the military, I would say that everyone that has served honorably in the military is a hero of sorts. By definition you may be called at any time to lay your life on the line and even those in supporting roles are a part of the effort that backs up the front line soldier, sailor, airman, or marine. Although I don't consider what I did heroic as we didn't see direct combat, my unit's contribution under the oceans played a part in preventing greater conflict and we trained constantly and sacrificed time away from our loved ones to be ready to step it up if ever called to do so.

    I also consider to be heroes those who save lives outside the military, such as firefighters, police, doctors, and nurses. Teachers are heroes for taking a largely thankless job trying to lead our next generation and yes, even protesters, who stand up for what they believe are our rights, are heroes. Should we idolize those who choose to put their lives on the line for others' benefits? I think that depends upon what the word means to you but I wish people would get away from idolizing celebrities and athletes as models for behavior. Not that they're all bad but their jobs are to entertain, so teach your kids to enjoy the entertainment and leave it at that. I agree that he chose the wrong time to make a point about members of the military being (or not being) heroes but that doesn't totally invalidate his argument.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
    • 3 basic needs

      Defending the proliferation of your own genetic code would be a more efficient use of resources from the standpoint of pure efficiency.

      May 29, 2012 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
  7. Steveraytx (Dallas)

    Mr. Hayes original remarks may have deluded a few rudderless minds as to what a hero is, but all should thank him for showing himself to be an excellent example of what a coward is.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      coward why?

      May 29, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
  8. AHeroisSpecific

    Too many "vets" game the system by claiming, "Hero status." When in fact, they were dragged drafted, didn't fight, and didn't produce anything. This whole "hire a vet" thing is ridiculous. "Fire a vet" I say. Let's see how well they fight when they're uemployed like the rest of us. Better yet – Position vets to police our corrupt courts to ensure our rights are enforced, not stolen. Now, that would make them heros.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
    • palmn

      No one is drafted or dragged into the into the military. We have a volunteer force. Hayes has the freedom to say what he wants only because we have a military that defends his freedom of speech.

      May 29, 2012 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  9. faye

    I do not revere war and I agree that it should always be a last resort, but as we are not in a position to stop this war I choose to support those who fight it. I have lost loved ones and I have loved ones who are still fighting. To me they are heros, but not everyone who serves is and not even those who have died necessarily are. I'm just saying that respect is not to much to give to these men and women.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
  10. MG

    Chris Hayes probably thinks Lebron James, Charlie Sheen are heroes

    One more point, nothing is worse than athletes comparing a game to warfare

    May 29, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      actually i would suggest he certainly doesnt think that, that much is obvious from his original question.

      May 29, 2012 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  11. Analystgirl

    Cris is correct and this is all a lot of hot air. The clowns at abu graib certainly weren't heros.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
  12. mwolve

    I agree with Chris. I also think that being a hero requires taking specific action well above and beyond others in a similar situation. It requires acts of selflessness and either doing something others are incapable of or something that leads to personal harm while performaning an act most others in the same situation cannot or will not.
    I generally respect all men and women who choose to wear the uniform ("generally" because individuals are individuals and should be taken as such). However, growing up and living in Hampton Roads I also know many of them personally and know some of their motivations. Some are in it to fight for good and do right for their country. Others are in it because it was the best job available or they needed direction in their life. Many never come close to seeing combat, some push papers all day, others do mechanical work, and some gaze at a computer screen while sitting in the middle of the sea. To put all military folks into the same category is to not recognize the true heros who have gone above and beyond, serve as models, and in some instances have made a great sacrifice.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Shrek

      now you are splitting hairs on criteria for a hero. It doesn't matter if the person sees combat or not. Who is more important; the person that fires the bullet or the person who makes sure they have bullets? Support roles are just as much heroes as the person on patrol. Not everyone can be on patrol. The men and women who keep aircraft, tanks and ships operating are just as much at risk as anyone else. They have the potential to see combat, but in the new 4th Generation Warfare where insurgency is prevalent, no one is safe from harm. If you start questioning motives, then you are truly misjudging the military.

      May 29, 2012 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  13. da

    I've seen on several occasions a definition of veteran that I think applies here: an individual who wrote a check to the United States valued up to and including his or her own life. I understand the attempts to make a distinction between uneventful service and dangerous, valourus service, but if you'll reflect on that definition, I think you'll find that the term "hero" fits anyone who makes that comitment. Non sibi sed Patriae.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      At least you can see what he was attempting to say, which is more than what some people actually seemed to have managed.

      May 29, 2012 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  14. Jim in PA

    Chris Hayes was right the first time. Serving in the military does not make you a defacto hero. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that a soldier who commits atrocities or war crimes is still a hero simply because of his active military status. And it cheapens the actions of those who truly act heroically.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
  15. Mike,Albany

    There can be heroes and anti-heroes in any area of service, or any human occupation for that matter. What counts is what you do and how you behave in your chosen endeavor. I tend to give military service individuals the benefit of the doubt because this kind of service is inherently selfless. But anyone in the military who abuses that position to commit atrocities loses that distinction. On the flip side, I tend not to give Wall Street execs the benefit of the doubt, but even there, a handful of them (and I mean a VERY few) can actually accomplish something that might be considered heroic and beneficial to society. But of course, there are the Wall Street anti-heroes, e.g. the Milkens and the Madoffs, in spades. Generally, it's our choices and our actions that make is heroes or anti-heroes.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
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