Why do we wrap dead soldiers in the flag?

If you’re late to the controversy, Chris Hayes asked this Memorial day whether dead U.S. soldiers are “heroes.” This was in a full and serious study of grief and its role in politics, for example quoting Joe Biden talking about getting the call that his wife and daughter had died. The entire TV show is here. For asking this question, Chris Hayes has been roundly condemned.

What he said was:

“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. 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, 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.”

One reply on this was by Kurt Sclitcher:

“But it’s the progressives’ own doing – their sickening performance following the Vietnam War, when they figuratively and literally spit on our troops – so disgusted decent Americans of all political stripes that to do anything but treat our troops with the utmost respect is to draw near-universal contempt and scorn from across the mainstream political spectrum.”

But the talking heads don’t really get at the issue.  They look into the language around it — words like “hero” and “sacrifice.” Why is the death of a soldier a sacrifice?  Why not a cost?

A friend of mine wrote a post urging everyone to remember on Memorial Day the sacrifices made for us all.  I wrote:  “…by Iraqis?”

It’s incredibly dangerous to get into the mindset that, because people have died, and because their death is linked to a cause, that their death is a sacrifice for that cause.  The purpose of making this link is to give value to their death.  But of course valuing death is inherently problematic.

If we pay a soldier’s life for a war, then the cost of the war is (at least) that soldier’s life.  But the word sacrifice tells us the soldier’s life represents the value of the war. Question the war’s value and you implicitly say the soldier died for nothing.

Ergo–You must not question the war’s value.

Some of the rest of us talked about this too.  The Facebook exchange I mention resulted in me PMing a good friend this:

Individual soldiers who volunteer — are not drafted — bear moral responsibility for their personal choices. Some are good people who want to contribute. Some are looking for an opportunity to kill people. Some want money and are willing to kill people to get it. That is the reality.

Random quote: “All of the guys I grew up with ended up either in prison or joining the military.” — I found that illuminating.

Consider Bush Jr’s defense against every evil lunatic thing he did: it is by such appeal to sentiment, that our soldiers are heros and the enemy, who died on their native soil, are terrorists, that the police state is maintained.

Such thinking is from the “point of view” of the state. But America is not a person, and if it were I would hope it would have something to say about the people who kill to profit themselves and claim they’re doing it for her.

I’m writing this to you personally just because I find you generally committed to intellectual honesty, and I think if you look into this honestly you’ll see you’ve been sold a bill of goods, that every soldier who enlists for idealistic reasons has been, and that it is the kind of flag-waving over dead soldiers promulgates that bill of good’s sale.

The flag is what we wrap dead soldiers in when we ship them home. The claim is that this somehow benefits the soldier. In fact, it benefits the flag.

Why do we wrap dead soldiers in the American flag when we bring them home?

In WWII, Himmler said that, “Every airman who dies in combat adds to the strength of our air force.”

That is why we wrap dead soldiers in the flag.

I remember into the first year of the Iraq war, the news reported that one soldier had died.  The soldier had written a letter requesting that, if he died, his death not be used for political purposes, neither to argue for nor against the war.

I do not personally feel that, in our current circumstances, soldiering is a morally defensible profession.  It is wrong to kill people, and the fact that Uncle Sam makes it  legal in war to kill does not make it right. Iraq did not have WMDs. These are not wars on our soil. There are better ways to make the world a better place than killing people.