Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Freedom Isn't Free!

At the RNC last week Mike Huckabee made a speech about how great veterans (and therefore John McCain) are (/is). He told a story about a teacher who taught her students that their education had been earned by veterans who fought for the country. Here's the YouTube video. Its a standard sort of story to tell about veterans, and I must admit, there's a part of me that appreciates this sort of unthinking hero worship, both purely for the social approval and also because I suspect that, the more widespread this sort of emotional reaction to the concept of fighting for one's country is, the more likely I am to wrench a disability stipend large enough to live off out of the VA. However, as selfish as I feel about the topic, there is something very wrong about framing military service this way.

First of all, its just not accurate to say that all the good things in our lives, our freedoms and privileges and so on, are due to the heroic efforts of American soldiers. Most countries in the world have schools with desks in them. When I was fourteen, I went with a group of teenagers to Kenya for the summer to build an addition to a school building way out in the bush, and even there, in a place where some families had to walk hours each way to bring drinking water back to their homes and plenty of families had to choose one of several children to send to school because they couldn't afford the $1-2 for uniforms and books for every child, once the kids got into school they had desks.

Even when you look at things less easy to identify than school desks, things like freedom and prosperity and other abstract nouns, its hard to imagine an alternate history that would have resulted in a nation that was completely unrecognizable. If, for example, the colonies had lost the Revolutionary War, there would never have been a United States, or a US Army, but there would still be people living here where we are now, and are Canada and Australia so alien and oppressed? Or maybe if we had never entered World War II- Europe would be a somewhat different place, and so would Southeast Asia, but does anyone seriously think that the North American continent would have been invaded with any success? Or if we had declined to fight the Cold War, does anyone really think that people in Kansas would be speaking Russian now, let alone learning Russian without the benefit of a school desk? There are a multitude of factors that contribute to a nation's identity. Military action is only one, and probably not even the most important when considered against things like basic geography. Attributing everything great about America to our military is just incorrect, and that irritates me.

However, there is a result of this attitude that is even worse than being factually wrong. When people believe that our comfortable American lives are directly due only to the action of our military, it is too easy to slip into thinking that any action our military takes benefits our comfortable American lives. Saying it like that makes it seem like a ridiculous belief, but people hold onto it. For some, it is even an essential part of patriotism. Freedom isn't free, you know, so if we're spending trillions of dollars and unmeasurable human agony in a foreign country, we must be paying for freedom. The military takes action to protect us from threats to our way of life, so if the military is taking action there must be a threat to our way of life. Fight them over there because the fight is all that stands between us and Iraqi tanks rolling down the streets of Wichita and Seattle and Houston.

Of course this is logically ridiculous. The only direct relationship between the occupation of Iraq and school desks in Tennessee is the lack of funding for school desks due to the cost of body armor. John McCain served honorably at great personal cost, but the war in Vietnam, like the war in Iraq, was not in any sense necessary to the survival of the United States and had nothing to do with the opportunity to attend middle school in homey, small town America. Anyone with a grasp of the most basic details of history should be able to see that. This particular brand of fuzzy thinking is so prevalent, though, that Huckabee gave his silly speech and got all kinds of applause for it.

Liberals, at least of this generation, tend to feel just as obliged to engage in this silly soldier worship as conservatives. This last Sunday afternoon I attended a meeting at the local library of a group of anti-war activists, and when they found out I was a veteran they all made a point of thanking me for my service. I really wouldn't prefer to be spat on and called a baby killer, but there must be a middle way. Deifying soldiers is barely a step away from mythologizing war, which is a direct cause of violent atrocities orders of magnitude worse than being insulted by some random jerk, and until these attitudes change I can't help but think that an anti-war group isn't going to be successful at all.


yanub said...

First, my apologies for accidently deleting your comment over at my blog. I put it up and replied to it all the same as if my hand had actually managed to click the "accept" button.

I am glad to see what you have written on this topic. Bumpersticker patriotism says "Thank a veteran for your freedom." No, thank a veteran for maintaining national sovereignty, but freedom is up to the individual citizen. We all fight for our freedom by using the freedoms we possess, and by demanding that the government respect those freedoms. Unless we are talking about the sort of freedom most dear to national elites--the freedom to rule without foreign interference--the military really isn't of much good unless the population as a whole values liberty. After all, every nation ever has had a military. Few nations have had any concern for civil liberty. So, thank a community organizer, thank a pro bono lawyer, thank a teacher, thank an artist, thank a blogger or other independent writer. Nobody's getting rich doing those things, either, but the entire edifice of liberty depends on regular, unarmed, people everyday going out and putting liberty into action.

As to you veterans, I wish that our country had enough respect for what soldiers are putting on the line that we never entered into armed conflict except for reasons of national sovereignty. And I think we owe you for having used you for such shallow aims.

Lene Andersen said...

But that's the thing, isn't it? The campaigns (of whatever politician) relies on a pure emotional response, bypassing logical thought, because if logical thought led, they'd be called on their crap. And somehow, since 9/11, the US government managed to make questioning the war, policies regarding the war and anything to do with counter-terrorism a heretical act. Accept blindly or be branded unpatriotic and un-American. Cleverly done, but chilling.

Tayi said...

yanub- I have this little fantasy where the idea that veterans are owed adulation and nothing more is mocked by people everywhere because everyone is so convinced that what veterans are really owed is good medical care, a living stipend if they can no longer work, education benefits and other rehab so they can fit into civilian life again, and an informed citizenry that reins in the government so it won't send soldiers to die for no damn reason. Unfortunately, I think ideas that complicated don't stick in the minds of the majority, so we may be stuck with either "we owe veterans everything" or "we owe veterans nothing." I'm reluctant to advocate for the latter attitude because of the personal consequences for me, but the former isn't really any healthier for the country... and its a hell of a lot less healthy for the Iraqis.

lene- Mindless adulation of the military is actually something that predates 9/11. After Vietnam, a lot of people had a very negative view of the military due to disruption caused by the draft and the trauma of some very bad leadership in Vietnam. After the draft was ended, the military made an effort to rehab their image and the "all-volunteer Army" has been in its current social position since at least the first Gulf War.

But then I guess using support for soldiers as an excuse to conduct war without oversight isn't even a modern concept. Didn't the government use similar propaganda during the Spanish-American War and the war in the Phillipines? If my memory was better I could tell you if I was misremembering that...