Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fighting for our Freedoms?

Preemptive disclaimer: I do not say this to downplay the real sacrifices, both on the battlefield and in later life, members of the military have and do make. (In fact, I think what our military asks people to do to their psyches is unconscionable and exploitative, but that's an entirely different can of worms I don't feel like getting into at the moment and has nothing to do with the specific, individual soldiers holidays like Memorial Day are meant to honor.)

I really, truly, honestly do not understand what people mean they thank our troops "for fighting for our freedoms!" Sarah Palin (I know, I know) tweeted this yesterday [edited to add spaces because my blog is not limited to 140 characters]: "VETERANS, not reporters, give freedom of the press. VETS, not politicians, give freedom to vote. VETS, not campus radicals, give freedom to assemble." Normally I would write this off as Palin being Palin, but I have heard the exact sentiment (though perhaps not those specific examples) every Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and many Fourths of July of my life from real-life, normal people I know. (At church, it was always "...who gave their lives for us to have the right to sit right here today and worship as we see fit.")

I just don't get it. I'm not trying to make a political statement abut war or the military or mock Sarah Palin for being an idiot (shocking, I'm sure) or decry the American habit of fetishizing our troops or imply that our troops aren't nice, honorable people or anything; I legitimately do not understand. (So if you can explain it in a way that seems at all coherent, please do.)

The general "fighting for our freedoms" formulation seems to imply that had we not fought in any or all of the wars we had, our country would have been taken over by our enemy or our government would have been overthrown or something catastrophic would have happened that would result in a totalitarian regime that would control our lives in unprecedented ways, banning religious expression and free speech, censoring the press, and doing who knows what other evil things. That's just plain untrue. In World War II, we weren't fighting for the freedom of American citizens, we were fighting to prevent Germany's gaining European hegemony. (The Pacific theater might provide more of a case since Japan actually did attack American soil, but again, had we not retaliated, I don't think anyone actually means to suggest that Japan would have rolled tanks into Washington and abolished freedom of speech.) If I remember correctly, World War I had even less to do with the U.S. Vietnam and Korea, though part of the general communist threat to the dominance of democracy and freedom in some grand sense, didn't have anything to do with fighting for U.S. citizens' rights.

Obviously the Revolutionary War was fought for the principles of democracy and freedom (though actually not the ones Palin or anyone else mentions since those tend to be part of the Bill of Rights, which didn't come until later). The War of 1812 seems a legitimate case of fighting in defense of the country and thus, by extension, the freedom of its citizens. Even the Civil War was legitimately about protecting a way of life in the United States (each side would have that perspective, even, though obviously they disagreed about which way of life deserved protection). But nobody still living knows anyone who fought in any of these wars, so presumably those aren't the people actually being thanked (which is a pity, really, because Memorial Day seems to be turning into Veterans Day part 2 or a Military Appreciation Day or something instead of a day of remembrance for those who have died).

So how about the current wars? I mean, I know we were attacked, but even so, and even despite the fact that it was indeed intended to be an attack on the American way of life and presumably on democracy and freedom, the terrorist groups we're talking about simply don't have the power to take away our freedoms. They're not big enough or strong enough to keep you from exercising your freedom of speech in this country. They're not in a position to tell you you can or can't worship as you please. And really, the 9/11 attack has nothing to do with Iraq at all, though I suppose had it turned out Hussein actually possessed WMDs, those would have posed a legitimate threat to America or Americans (depending on what he would be planning to do with them). Of course, even so, I'm still not sure anyone's ability to blow up chunks of the country in any way gives them a chance to deprive us of our freedoms unless they are able to then take over the country and replace the government.

So I wouldn't find it nonsensical if people thanked the military for "fighting for freedom" or "fighting for democracy" or even "fighting to protect our interests"—one or the other of those is actually applicable in every conflict we have gotten involved in. But fighting for our—Americans'—freedoms, especially fighting for specific freedoms like those of free speech, press, and assembly? I think that necessitates a deliberate (and inaccurate) reframing of the entire narrative of the American military's actions.

Regarding Palin's statement specifically, I do agree that reporters are not who guarantee or protect freedom of the press, politicians are not who bestow suffrage upon us, and protesters are not the source of the right of assembly. But neither are vets of any war in the past 300 years responsible for the granting of those rights (obviously) or even the protection of them in any literal sense. It's not veterans who give us the right to assemble peacefully, it's the first amendment to the Constitution. Barring an invading force of extreme power, the only way for our freedoms to be abridged is through the United States government itself in concert with a lack of attention or political will on the part of the citizenry.

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