Sunday, February 22, 2004

I know this will probably get me into more trouble than if I wrote an essay about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but here goes...

My thesis is pretty simple. I respect soldiers. I oppose their canonization. I know this is a patriotically incorrect thing to say but it needs to be addressed.

One of the functions of soldiers* is to defend our country against foreign invaders. Fortunately, this doesn't happen very often. Only twice in the last 100+ years have we fought wars against someone who's attacked us and their supporters: World War II and Afghanistan. My grandfather got a Purple Heart in the former.

Whether the other countless wars we've been involved with since then were justified or not is another issue. But very few wars have been a question of defending Americans' freedoms. I think this is a good thing because the alternative doesn't leave you much margin for error. Yet I think there needs to be a little intellectual honesty in the discussion.

[*-for the purposes of this essay, I'm referring to active soldiers, not to National Guardsmen, who generally serve a different role. The regular military has been used in an imperial manner for a long time. Some say the United States' imperial era started with the Spanish-American war; others say it was outlined as far back as the Monroe Doctrine. Thus, anyone who voluntarily decides to join the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines should become informed as to how America's foreign policy is likely to affect them. It's neither new nor a secret. Anyone who joins the active military must make themselves aware that history (and the present) shows they are far more likely to be used in an imperial excursion than in defending American freedom. If you know what you're getting into beforehand, there's less room for the "just following orders" response after the fact. They have a moral duty to know what they're getting themselves into beforehand and figure out if the way the government will use them corresponds or conflicts with their beliefs and reasons for joining. If this happened, there'd be less bitterness and anger when they are used in the way they were always likely to be used.]

One thing rankles me is the way society treats soldiers as though they are not only honorable, but exceptional in that way. It can be an honorable profession, when government policy doesn't prevent it from being so. Yet, it is not the only honorable profession out there. No one wears 'support our cops' ribbons, even though some of them serve in de facto war zones. If a firefighter dies in the line of duty, does it evoke the same outpouring of emotion as a military death?

I think it has to do with the macho American culture. We're awed by shows of strength. Building is something we're not quite as good at, since it requires a little more patience, diplomacy and (toughest of all) subtlety. The Occupation Forces in Iraq are finding all this out.

I was in the Peace Corps for two years. Very few people would consider that "service to our country" and almost no one would consider it service to our country in the same way as joining the military and going to war. That's fine with me. When I served in West Africa, I didn't have guys shooting at me. So I realize there's a difference.

Although some people don't think much about the work done by Peace Corps volunteers (mushy, soft, touchy-feely), I'm glad I did it. Many people see Americans as a giant imperial behemoth. They see Americans as the guys who invade weak countries to get their oil or because they're anti-Muslim. This may not be true, but it's the perception many people around the world are left with and denying that this perception exists is dangerously self-deceptive.

Humanitarian and development volunteers make a contribution in countering that perception. People like Peace Corps volunteers and related workers are in the front line in combating anti-Americanism. It might be slow, it might not be sexy or macho and there are no guns involved. But it's the most important and most effective way to prove to foreigners that we mean well. Unfortunately, these slow and painstaking efforts are often undermined by reckless government decisions.

Still, it's hard to hate Americans when some of them are giving you vaccinations or teaching your son mathematics. In the country where I served, 80% of the people were Muslim, yet Islamic extremism and anti-Americanism was pretty much non-existent. With programs like these, Americans become real human beings with flesh and bones rather than a vague abstraction. Americans become a people rather than a government with a military.

And it's not just Peace Corps. The people I admire most are those who go into war zones to deliver food or house refugees or give medical care. These are people who really do risk their lives to help other people. They could be living comfortably in Europe or North America, but instead they are dodging bullets and negotiating with drugged up 12 year olds with Kalashnakovs. Sure, some of them may be adrenaline junkies, but the fact is that many innocent people are still alive because of them. They risk life and limb for the sole purpose (and sole effect) of helping others. I happen to think there's something noble about it, even if no one throws them a parade or makes a movie-of-the-week about them or puts signs in front lawns in their honor.

Even ostensibly anti-war people inadvertantly contribute to this sense that soldiers' opinions are worth more than anyone else's. Some say, "George W. Bush wouldn't have been so casual and reckless about sending our troops to war if he'd experienced it himself." Yet I've read of some veterans who take the opposite opinion than the hypothetical quote above. They say, "Hey, I've done my duty, now it's time for you to do yours," as though duty exclusively means war.

The "only soldiers know what war is" statement implies that only warriors understand how devastating war is. War is devastating but not only for our boys, which is all most people here care about (ironic, since Iraq was supposedly a selfless war). It's also brutal on civilians in the war zone. Civilians are the people most affected by war but, without weapons, are the least able to affect its course.

I've never fought in a war. I have, however, visited a region devastated by war. I have visited a refugee camp. I know people who are refugees, whose lives and families and homes and societies have been destroyed by war. I don't need to pick up an AK-47 and get into a firefight and kill people to know how bad war is. Lots of people haven't even had my experience and they know war is horrible too. War may be hell, but it's immediate aftermath is often worse.

What I most oppose about the canonization of soldiers is that it creates a separate class of citizenry. Soldiers are better than non-soldiers. Their opinions are more valid. Their position on war and security can not be challenged by "mere civilians." Sometimes the self-righteousness and self-importance borders on vulgar.

A Marine, Father David O'Brien, reportedly wrote a famous essay in which he stated:

It is the Soldier not the reporter, who has given us Freedom of the press. It is the Soldier not the poet, who has given us Freedom of speech. It is the Soldier not the campus organizer, who has given us the Freedom to demonstrate. It is the Soldier not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial. It is the soldier, who salutes the Flag, who serves beneath the Flag and whose coffin is draped by the Flag, who allows the protester to burn the Flag.

This perfectly demonstrates the canonization I'm talking about.

There is a reason we live in a civilian republic. There is a reason why the Constitution mandates the president (commander in chief) not be an active military person. Why? Because what's most disturbing about this quote is its implications.

If the soldier gave us freedom of the press, the soldier can take it away at his whim. If the soldier gave us freedom of speech, he can take it away at his whim. If the soldier gave us the freedom to demonstrate, the right to a fair trial and the right to burn the flag, he can take them away at his whim.

Although I oppose the blanket canonization of the Founding Fathers as well (see earlier essay), a lot of things they said are still valid. Father O'Brien's comments are antithetical to those expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The soldier didn't give us these freedoms. Our Creator did. All Man can do is take those rights away. Freedom is the default position, not given to us because guys with guns felt like being generous. He who giveth can just as easily taketh away. This is not ingratitude. It's the truth.

Soldiers are infrequently called to defend our freedoms, but they don't give them to us. Thanks soldiers but don't canonize them.

And remember, other people, like humanitarian workers or mentors or people who work in the social domain, do a lot to make the world a better place too. I'd like see one of them on the cover of TIME one of these days.

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