Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Freedom Granted, Freedom Won

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.

Columns of drums beat as a solemn white male voice -- Sam Elliott? -- recites each line, indicting those who don't fall to their knees at the sight of a camo-painted Hummer or a Predator drone cleansing some Haji-infected neighborhood.

Stirring stuff. Gets the wood nice and stiff. Only thing is, it's bullshit.

Of all American manias, military worship is particularly noxious. Much of this fetishizing comes from civilians who've never worn the uniform, but who get excited at the idea of others Kicking Ass. They believe that the military is a sacred religious order to be obeyed and revered without question. But there are those who've worn and wear the uniform who feel pretty much the same way. It's drilled into them from boot camp on. It appeals to those who have little else in their lives.

I know. I was there. I saw it. When I was in boot camp, our Drill Sergeants, when not calling us scum, maggots, ladies, faggots and pussies, told us how special we would be once we went into active duty. We were part of a fearless Warrior Tribe, the fiercest in the world. We were connected to something larger than ourselves, a sacred trust where no one was left behind and everybody had your back. To a bunch of 18/19-year-old kids, mostly rural whites and inner-city blacks, this was hard-core stimulation. Many of those I trained with had little in the civilian world to go back to. This was their best shot to achieve greatness and no commie civilian was gonna tell them otherwise.

A seductive pitch. So I understand where this mindset originates, how powerful it is to those who desire some kind of power in their lives. But even a general glance at American history shows us something else.

The claim that the "Soldier not the reporter" gave us freedom of the press, and the "Soldier not the poet" gave us free speech, while reassuring, is mostly wrong. Actually, war, the threat of war, and post-war periods often deliver the opposite of free press and speech.

Look at the post-Revolutionary period and discover numerous violations of freedom of the press and speech, mostly notably in the Federalist-supported Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which essentially made it illegal to criticize the president (John Adams), the possibility of war with France (desired by Alexander Hamilton) being a motivating factor.

Continue through the 19th century and you'll find writers, speakers and activists, primarily those who advocated for women's suffrage and the abolition of slavery, harassed and silenced via sedition and criminal conspiracy laws. Neither the Mexican War of 1846-48, nor the Civil War of the 1860s, ensured, protected or expanded free speech and a free press. Those rights were fought for and won by the writers and poets themselves, oftentimes in the face of mob violence (as was the case with Mexican War dissidents). The grabbing of Mexican territory and the smashing of the Confederacy had more to do with expanding and consolidating Federal power (while enriching those with the right connections) than with clearing the path for unfettered discourse.

In the 20th century, American wars and those who waged them further undermined critical speech. Woodrow Wilson's repressive actions were justified by war in Europe and class war at home. The Sedition Act of 1917 and the Espionage Act of 1918 made it a crime to criticize U.S. entry into World War I. Newspapers and magazines were shut down or denied mailing privileges. Public speakers were banned, harassed, and in the case of Eugene V. Debs, jailed for daring to oppose Wilson's autocratic laws.

During World War II, conscientious objectors were herded into work camps under a program called Civilian Public Service. They were sentenced to hard labor for nine hours a day, six days a week, and had to pay the government for room and board. Those who refused this arrangement were imprisoned. After the Second World War, loyalty oaths, censorship and blacklisting further narrowed permissible public speech. Again, it was civil libertarians and other activists, not soldiers, who battled the government and beat back political repression.

During the Vietnam War, the government spied on dissidents (when not, as with Fred Hampton, killing them outright), infiltrating their ranks and helping to create disorder and exploit rifts. In today's Terror War world, we have the perpetual Patriot Act as well as an increase in domestic spying and surveillance of those who are critical of endless war, rendition, and corporate state power.

In short, the romantic idea that American soldiers fought and died to allow dissidents room to breathe really doesn't hold up.

You might point to the defeat of Nazi Germany as an exception, assuming that the Germans had the power to invade and occupy the U.S. (The war with Japan, begun years before Pearl Harbor, was a battle over oil reserves and control of Asian markets.) The Soviet Union played a major role in Hitler's downfall, yet I rarely see American patriots give Stalin any serious credit. Corporate outlets make it seem as if the U.S. won World War II largely on its own. So in the one case where their claim may be valid, patriots must romanticize reality in order to make it true.

The freedom to demonstrate, the right to a fair trial, the freedom to burn the flag -- it was the activists, lawyers, writers and other advocates who were on the frontlines of those battles, at times facing the very soldiers who supposedly were granting all that freedom to begin with.

Soldiers, by and large, are tools used to advance the interests of those who own and run the country. They are lied to, conned and conditioned to believe they are fighting for "freedom" when in most cases they are killing, dying and being maimed to enrich domestic elites and their allies/business partners.

A hard truth to swallow, which is why so many Americans prefer the standard story. Recently, I caught on radio a reporter just back from Iraq and he addressed this very issue. Some of the soldiers he spoke to were upset that their recruiters and officers lied about what awaited them in Iraq. The con job was cracking.

Instead of exploring why this was so, many of these disgruntled soldiers further retreated into a black and white world. They are fighting for Good while those opposed are Bad. Understandable: no one likes to be lied to or made a fool. But it's also dishonest and potentially destructive, both to soldiers and society at large. The Soldier Mantra above is an authoritarian appeal and historical dodge. You don't honor the troops by making them gods. This deprives them of their humanity, their only hope of finding some peace.