Who Shall We Honor?

In the US, today is Memorial Day, when we are to honor warriors who died in our side of wars.  In addition we are to honor all our warriors on Veterans’ Day, and our first warriors and politicians on Independence Day.  We also have days to honor wartime politicians, one warring explorer, all mothers, all fathers, and "laborers" (i.e., most all of us). 

Yes warriors, dead and otherwise, deserve some honor, but to me this seems all out of proportion.   Not only do we overemphasize warriors of dramatic battles we won (e.g., not WWI trench doughboys), but surely many others deserve honor.  How about warriors who died on other sides, or in other wars?  How about civilians who died or sacrificed in wars?  How about those who prevented wars?

And surely war should not be the main source of honor in our world!  How about holidays to honor those who died for or sacrificed for or at least benefited the rest of us in other ways?  For example, why not a day to honor volunteers?  Or a day to honor all explorers, including intellectual, artistic, and business explorers?  Why focus so much on our winning dead warriors? 

Added:  Yes our ancestors probably evolved warrior honor to get people to defend their tribe.  But shall we on reflection endorse or repudiate these feelings? 

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Julian Morrison

    If you want heroes, there probably ought to be a worldwide annual holiday for Norman Borlaug.

  • mitchell porter

    Dying for a cause is the most you can give, if you rank the possibilities in a certain way. It is the sacrifice that leaves nothing of you behind.

    But I think the answer to your final question should be sought in function. What function is served, wittingly or unwittingly, by the existence of a day on which a society remembers its war dead?

  • http://www.dennisgorelik.com/ Dennis Gorelik

    Civilians don’t need to be praised as much as warriors do.

  • AJ

    Fathers die in war, volunteers die in war, intellectuals die in war, potential political leaders die in war, the potential business elite die in war, the common worker dies in war and thus your own question can be answered. We have these days because war is the one thing that brings all of these types of people together, at least historically.

    And to say war is the only way to honor in the United States is as foolish a comment as can be made. Honor is simply a state of being and look at the number of awards given out every year around the world, and count how many make the news that are for war rather than other achievements.

    And now I must venture to class, studying in Europe I don’t have the benefit of memorial day…

  • http://rhhardin.blogspot.com Ron Hardin

    It’s a little bit of poetic misunderstanding risen into a media tradition.

    We honor those who are called and go because it’s the basic form of morality itself – you’re called on and you do something. You may fail to be up to it. Many people are, all the time. Or you may do what you’re called on to do.

    It’s moral because an obligation addresses you. At that instant, you’re unique and irreplaceable, by being addressed. Morality creates you.

    We honor all who are called on and go, whether injured, killed, or not. Those who have gone when called.

    And we will very quickly forget them, and that is just as well; if they go so that they will be honored, they go for the wrong reason. WWII vets typically and famously are embarrassed by attention.

    So in summary it’s a displaced honoring of morality itself, and confused by the media, which turns everything into soap opera.

  • http://acceleratingfuture.com Michael Anissimov

    Because evolutionary psychology, that’s why.

  • antti k

    “Why focus so much on our winning dead warriors?”

    I know you aren’t asking and you already have an answer, but let me give us all the textbook explanation.

    National states in the form of the government have and would like to retain the right to absolute power (i.e. overpowering lethal force), which means a working military.

    In order to keep the military alive, one needs in terms of sociology: an enemy, a righteousness of cause, the myth of the sacrifice through heroism and the myths of historical wins.

    These all need be rekindled and re-inforced from time to time.

    Unless properly kept alive, the power of the military wanes.

    And yes, my relatives died fighting a repressive force in order to defend our independence (see the myth here?), so don’t anybody even try and bring that card up.

    So, that’s why we honor the dead soldiers as heroes, because the government needs it.

    Otherwise mourning their loss as individuals and relatives (and not as mythical soldier-heroes) would probably suffice.

  • Caledonian

    So, that’s why we honor the dead soldiers as heroes, because the government needs it.

    That’s why we do it now, of course, but it’s not why that tendency was bred into the human mind. It’s not why we did it.

    We did it because the tribe needed it. And that is a subtler matter.

    Nations have, pretty effectively in most cases, subverted the old tribal instincts to their own purposes. The people that have retained tribal allegiances tend to be viewed as dangerous outsiders and a threat, because they are – to the psychological identification of individuals with the nation.

  • billswift

    Fathers die in car accidents, volunteers die in car accidents, intellectuals die in car accidents, potential political leaders die in car accidents, the potential business elite die in car accidents, the common worker dies in car accidents and thus your own question can be answered. We have these days because car accidents is the one thing that brings all of these types of people together, at least historically.

    or insert your own phrase: of drowning, in fires, from falls, and so on ad infinitum (or nearly).

    “it’s the basic form of morality itself – you’re called on and you do something”

    Simply not thinking is the most common bias.

  • http://www.vetta.org Shane Legg

    One is upset relatives. People who help avoid wars and live to tell about it don’t have upset relatives. After a few wars there are enough upset relatives that if you don’t show them respect they will vote you out of office.

    Another is the psychology of reciprocation. If somebody does something for you then you owe them back. If they did something big for you that cost them their life, you owe them big time. You see it in the Christian meme, “Jesus died for your sins, what have you done for him?”

  • http://itsallendogenous.wordpress.com David Jinkins

    Look no further than military pay charts:

    http://www.navycs.com/08militarypaychart.html

    Even if we add in discounted future tax benefits and subsidies, military jobs are as risky as they come and ridiculously low paid. All those days to honor veterans, along with the idea of national duty etc. are just subtle military subsidies. If we considered being a soldier just the riskiest of risky jobs like miner or meat packer, no one would volunteer to go to war at today’s wages.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Mitchell, people die for many other causes.

    AJ, we have lots of other things in common.

    Ron, there are lots of other kinds of calls.

    Antti, why can’t nations stay alive by just paying for soldiers?

    David, why don’t we save money by paying all workers in honor then?

    Shane, why aren’t relatives upset about not honoring others?

    Caledonian, see my added above.

  • http://metaandmeta.typepad.com Anonymous

    Why do you hate our troops? (!)

  • http://metaandmeta.typepad.com Q the Enchanter

    Comment May 26, 2008 at 10:58 AM was due to “Q” the Enchanter

  • Dave

    If we considered being a soldier just the riskiest of risky jobs like miner or meat packer, no one would volunteer to go to war at today’s wages.

    Soldier is nowhere close to being the riskiest of jobs. I would be very surprised if it made the top twenty.

  • R. Richard Schweitzer

    Perhaps Robin has forgotten the origins of the particular practice of this day:

    In The South of my youth, it was still known as “Decoration Day.” It was begun by women, mothers chiefly, who were not some much “honoring” as remembering the circumstances of death for both Confederate and Union dead, and the significance of burial of the dead – probably the oldest indicator of the origins of civilization (Read, Vico).

    In its origins these observances, these attentions were not for “honor,” but for respect. There are still societies that preserve and maintain cemetaries for those same reasons.

    That said, from the view of one who saw action in WW II, there is no vice in honoring those who died in wars that were not of their making, but of their ending.

  • http://www.vetta.org Shane Legg

    “Shane, why aren’t relatives upset about not honoring others?”

    They probably would like too, but there aren’t enough of them.

    For example, not having a day to think of those who died on the other side: most of the upset relatives in your country are relatives of people who were fighting on your side, not the other side. Same for non-war volunteers: if a country had lost many hundreds of thousands of non-war volunteers over its history I think it would hold a remembrance day for them too. Same for explorers who died: not enough upset relatives to give them a day. Same for civilians killed: if the world war II Jewish holocaust had taken place on US soil, I bet you would have a remembrance day in the US for these people.

  • Caledonian

    Same for civilians killed: if the world war II Jewish holocaust had taken place on US soil, I bet you would have a remembrance day in the US for these people.

    Oh? When is the remembrance day for Native Americans?

    I’m pretty sure your basic ideas about why we have such rituals, and what we have them about, are wrong.

  • http://www.vetta.org Shane Legg

    How many upset relatives of dead Native Americans are there currently in the US?

    At less than 1% of the US population, Native Americans politically don’t have the numbers to make it happen. It also happened too long ago for most people to care much about it – at least that was the impression I got from most Americans when I asked them about it while I was living in New York.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Far more people have been killed in car accidents than in war. Same for heart attacks. So there must be lots more relatives who want a day to honor car victims, right?

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    I like to think about my great-uncle Homer Kurtz, born in Kansas, who at the age of 17 was sent Over There to Gay Paree. He survived a slight gassing, went to the hospital, fell for a French nurse, knocked her up, and was sent home in due time.

    He wrote many letters begging her to come marry him and live in Kansas, but I suppose few Parisiennes would take that offer. She wrote him only 1 in reply, a short no thanks and drop dead, apparently.

    In the spring of 1920 in despair he threw himself out of the hayloft, but I suppose nowadays we would say he died of post-traumatic stress disorder, not romantic love.

    I have little idea actually what American interests were served by poor Homer meeting France and French beauty killing him, but I like to think about him today. Certainly in France there are many memorials to the WWI dead, both native and international.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    The word “honor” encodes a whole value system which is largely rooted in military values. Its layered meanings reflect not just that we think someone is valuable, or moral, but that they have a particular relationship with their society and a particular way of conducting themselves.

    It’s not the only value system we use, though. See Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival.

    Also, it’s interesting to think about who is the “we” that is doing all this honoring. Any individual is of course free to honor anybody they want, scientists or atheletes or rock musicians or bond traders. And indeed all these people are honored on special occasions, generally by their peers groups. The “we” doing the honoring on Memorial Day is a nation and its government, which is naturally going to be biased toward the kinds of things that government specializes in, namely violence.

    We have at least progressed a long way since, say, the European cultures of the 18th and 19th century when status was much more tied to military service than it is now.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I think the sharpest way possible of putting this question would be:

    Why does the US have a national Memorial Day and Veterans Day for soldiers, but not police officers?

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepapd.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “Yes warriors, dead and otherwise, deserve some honor, but to me this seems all out of proportion. Not only do we overemphasize warriors of dramatic battles we won (e.g., not WWI trench doughboys), but surely many others deserve honor. How about warriors who died on other sides, or in other wars? How about civilians who died or sacrificed in wars? How about those who prevented wars?

    And surely war should not be the main source of honor in our world! How about holidays to honor those who died for or sacrificed for or at least benefited the rest of us in other ways? For example, why not a day to honor volunteers? Or a day to honor all explorers, including
    intellectual, artistic, and business explorers? Why focus so much on our winning dead warriors?”

    I’m pretty confident I know the trump answer to your questions, and I’m a bit smug it hasn’t been given yet. Hint: what do veterans organizations have in common with labor unions, christians, and the civil rights movement organizations inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.? They’re among the best discrete and insular minorities (special interest groups). I suspect days of honor correlate well with the best discrete and insular minorities, in part because they’re useful points on which to rally and organize their bases, and perhaps because they’re ways to signal a level of political power. They also correlate well with national federal holidays:

    http://www.opm.gov/operating_status_schedules/fedhol/2008.asp

    Protean and ascending discrete and insular minorities probably have days of honor that they’re pushing for that reason (Cesar Chavez Day).

  • http://www.bbnflstats.com Brian

    Warriors are willing to give up their lives for thier country. Do you have any idea how much courage, both physical and moral, that requires? Their only request is that you not forget their sacrifice. Not a bad deal for those at home who benefit from the sacrifice.

    The true trump answer to your question doesn’t have anything to do with identity politics (as suggested earlier), but with economics. If American soldiers believed their sacrifices would not be remembered or honored, they would stop sacrificing. The world would be a very, very different place.

    This is a repeat post by the way. It’s just as silly as the first time. Why does Memorial Day offend you so much? Do you have a chip on your shoulder about military guys?

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    One interesting feature of warriors, as opposed to, say, police officers, is that a large percentage of them have been drafted (historically)- that is, called to act without having much choice in the matter. Also, even for volunteers, a huge portion of their choice is removed upon enlistment. I think an interesting question is whether those who do a duty that is required of them should be differently honored than those who voluntarily take on a duty that was not, legally speaking, required of them. Is it different to be a draftee than to be a volunteer? Are your actions different if you are a free civilian than if you “belong” to the Corps?

  • http://thinkingonthemargin.blogspot.com Brian Hollar

    Some good questions. I just made an attempt at answering them on my blog. Here is what I wrote:
    [900 word repost deleted by editor.]

  • Dynamically Linked

    why don’t we save money by paying all workers in honor then?

    Interesting question. My answer is that honor is a kind of social status, and status is relative so paying everyone with it wouldn’t make sense. We pay soldiers with honor because we want to attract into the military people who value honor more than wealth, probably because those people make better soldiers on average.

    I notice that we do honor peacemakers, scientists, artists, etc., but only on an individual basis with prizes and the like, rather than en masse. This may have to do with the fact that the military has very strict supervision of its soldiers, so there’s comparatively little risk that someone can get honor while doing little work.

  • komponisto

    Why does the US have a national Memorial Day and Veterans Day for soldiers, but not police officers?

    Policing is considered a job — and not necessarily always a particularly noble one (cf. tax collectors). By contrast, the military is for some reason not considered a mere occupation. (Note, for example, the bad connotation of the word “mercenary”.)

    That’s why you get people arguing about the Iraq war as if we still had a draft. The Iraq war may be bad policy, but arguing against it on the grounds that it “puts our soldiers in harm’s way” strikes me as inappropriate, since it is literally the job of “our soldiers” is to be in harm’s way. Nowadays, with conscription a thing of the past, there is every reason to regard the military as closely analogous to other risky occupations like police or firefighting.

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    komponisto, perhaps military occupations are special in that even if someone volunteers to become a soldier, his actions are largely outside his free choice. A firefighter may refuse an assignment or quit his job; a soldier may not.

    We are used to focusing on a person’s freely chosen actions in according merit; however, there’s a neat argument that it’s unfair to accord the same honor/reward for an action that’s freely chosen as opposed to one that’s undertaken by mandatory duty. The person who had a duty to act, and did so, was subject to greater punishment (being court-martialed, jailed in a military prison for desertion, etc.) if he refused than someone who didn’t have the duty to act. Shouldn’t the greater punishment the duty subjected the person to also come with a proportionally greater reward/honor if the duty is performed? In other words, why should civilians in dangerous jobs have all the same honor and reward as military folks, when they are subject to much less severe punishments if they refuse to act?

    (I came into contact with this argument in a paper on the duty to study Torah by David Benatar – “Obligation, Motivation, and Reward: An Analysis of a Talmudic Principle,” 2002 in Journal of Law and Religion.)

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Someone complains here that we honor dead police more than civilians, but he’s an atypical person.

  • komponisto

    Sister Y, I would think just the opposite. Rewards and punishments are incentives; hence if there’s already a powerful disincentive (punishment) for not performing an action, there is less of a need for an incentive (reward) for performing it; and conversely.

    Furthermore, someone who volunteers to become a soldier presumably understands the terms of the arrangement, including the fact that they will be subject to harsh punishments for failing to obey orders, etc.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    The powerful disincentive arises only after the person volunteers to become a soldier, so if you take away the incentive of Memorial Day, fewer will volunteer.

  • Thanatos Savehn

    It’s a day for Warriors. However, feel free to propose a “People Who Got Wasted Just Hanging Around” Day.

    We can honor lots of folks on such a holiday. Take one case I’ve got right now. Poor guy was driving down the interstate when a wheel, no tire, from a compact came bouncing up and over the Jersey barrier and through his windshield. He never saw it. Sheared off the top of his head just above his nose. He didn’t even drop his coffee.

    It makes you think.

    Maybe, somewhere in one of the Many Thanatoses, he got there a second before or a second later and so he made it home to his family; and they’re not now trying to blame a car company for failing to warn the owners of its cars not to tie spare wheels up under it with nylon string 1/16th in. thick, and leave it there for 2 months. But then how would I make a living?

    What a weird sad world.

  • http://www.vetta.org Shane Legg

    “Far more people have been killed in car accidents than in war. Same for heart attacks.”

    I guess they miss the reciprocation aspect. You don’t owe them anything. As for Eli’s comment on why we don’t honour fallen police officers with a day…

    Ok, that’s a more problematic one 🙂

    Perhaps because their collective deaths are not associated with a single event. Thus the NYFD who died on 9/11 might not have a remembrance day, but they are closer to it than the many more fire fighters who have died in smaller events over the years.

  • Tony Ryan

    Why is this so complicated? Think about this: Why is this so complicated?

  • Sam B

    Here’s one possibility: they ran out of other excuses for a holiday.

    In England quite a lot of people believe we should have another public holiday in the year, particularly as we have none between the last Monday of August and Christmas. One of the problems is that no-one has any idea what to name it after. The only two serious possibilities – apart from national patron saint days, which are in the wrong time of the year – are “Britishness Day” and “Veterans’ Day”. Despite being the frontrunners both are anathema to British culture, which views flag-waving and military-worship with suspicion. (You can come up with various reasons for this, from post-Empire angst to being brought up watching films of swastika-waving Nazis and being told “That is bad, we fought so we didn’t have to do that”.)

    The fact that we can’t think of any universally appealing excuses for a public holiday suggests there aren’t very many available, once you’ve used up the religious festivals that don’t offend non-believers, days of historical significance, etc. So perhaps the thought process is not “We need to honour soldiers, let’s have a holiday” but “We need a holiday, let’s… uh… honour soldiers”. The question “so why soldiers” remains but is less significant.

  • Rob Spear

    Human societies run on a combination of violence (or the threat of violence), and bullshit (or mass belief in untrue things). Without people willing to believe in the bullshit enough to back it up with violence, our current civilization would come to an end. Hence the need to honor the warrior ethic.