Thursday, July 5, 2012

On Independence Day as a celebration of our military

It is impossible in the modern era to celebrate America without simultaneously venerating Our Troops. The culture that enables and nourishes this cynical farce is a threat to our politics, our democracy, and our very opportunity to embody the high ideals articulated at our national founding.

I noted with self-satisfied amusement the tendency of many people to begin their Fourth by reflexively thanking The Troops, those brave and altruistic souls who have sacrificed so much to win and preserve our independence. A friend challenged my cynicism, asking why it was so inappropriate to express gratitude to those who have served. I'm disappointed to say that this sensible plaint fell on mostly-deaf ears, and that my immediate reaction had something to do with the idiocy of unthinkingly conflating American greatness with military excellence. But her comment deserved a more thoughtful reply, and I've spent most of the last day reconsidering the substance of my flip dismissal. So, then: why is it a big deal to turn Independence Day into another Veteran's Day?

While I should hope my support for the military and appreciation to those who have served is a settled concern, let me just get this out up front: I value the hell out of American veterans, and the scant thanks we give those who have truly sacrificed is a scar on our national honor. What's worthy of respect is not their defense of freedom, their fight for liberty, or their preservation of independence, but the simple act of service: all who have worn the uniform chose to do something uncomfortable, unpleasant, occasionally unfashionable, and very often unnecessary—and they have done so because the country asked for men and women, and they knew this, and they wouldn't say "someone else can go."

We are a nation of laws, not of men. Our liberty was imagined by the thoughtful, courageous men who articulated our rejection of tyranny in the Declaration; but the fact of our independence was enacted through a successful rebellion—through a feat of arms. We mustn't forget this.

But what does it mean to be a nation of laws? It means that our national greatness is not embodied in king or president or flag or uniform, but in our political and social ideals: consent of the governed, equality under the laws, real justice for all, due accord to the views of our peers (and a decent respect to the opinions of mankind). The foundational premise of the Declaration of Independence is that a government insensitive to the needs and rights of citizen or subject has ceded its right to rule: that is, that a nation is truly the embodiment of its people and their commerce with one another, not its ruler(s) or even its system of government. Nor is a nation its army, it hardly needs be said.

Those who serve have been made tools of their nation, used for good and ill (though rarely for independence), and their nation owes gratitude for this. We owe this gratitude every day, not just on Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. We owe it most especially to those who faced the horrors of combat, to those who gave of themselves in ways that can never be compensated. To those who have sacrificed, sweated, fought, bled, and died for America and its will: thank you for doing what someone must, and for going when so many would not. When I speak of "America and its will," I do so without a hint of cynicism or reproach. But I find it difficult to speak un-ironically of liberty or freedom, for it's been quite some time since any American soldier has had cause to be much concerned with either of them.

To come more directly to the point: when we try to conceive of American greatness on our national day and our first resort is gratitude for those who enact the will of the government, we've done something very wrong.  Service is necessary and commendable, as I've said, but its celebration on July 4th is antithetical to what Independence Day ought to evoke in us: an appreciation for the greatness of what America is, not what it does. What it does is not so different from what other states do, and what all states must: accumulate power, flex its muscles, fight to gain, fight to survive. But what it is is different: it is a nation of laws, conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—not just those who fight, or those who are rich, or those who are elected, or those who rule by divine right. When we thank American soldiers and veterans for American greatness, we celebrate the survival of a polity more than the national embodiment of this radical political ideal.

Some will dismiss this as over-intellectualizing, as tendentious meandering about militarism and ideals and American decline. "It's just about remembering veterans," they'll say, "not any of this other stuff about political philosophy or exceptionalism." I don't agree. The near-religious veneration of military service has corrosive effects on our democracy, to be sure, but that's not the crux of what I'm saying today. What I'm getting at is this: every society in the history of humankind has had men and women raise their hands and go to the front, and we're a better country for our ability to appreciate their sacrifice. But the flag, the uniform, the president, the defied king... these are the idols of our democracy, not the real god. We may respect them and revere them and use them as proxies for our national greatness, but Independence Day should remind us of what's really at the heart of it – the spirit of liberty, justice, and equality in which our country was founded – and inspire us to live up to its promise.

4 comments:

  1. Obviously you are a fascist socialist that would rather be ruled by a totalitarian dictator. What a marxist imbecile! Let me guess you also think we need to cut defense spending too? Fight them there so we don't fight them here! Praise the troops! Everyone who ever stepped in a recruiters office is a hero! Die commie!

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  2. Thank you for this. You put your finger on a feeling that had been impossible for me to grasp. Nicely done.

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  3. This is something I think about a lot, so I have a couple questions:

    1. It seems like the troop veneration has become more frequent since 9/11. Is that your sense too?

    2. If so, why do you think that is?

    3. It seems like the troop veneration has increased in frequency even inside the post-2001 era. i.e. it is more intense in 2012 than it was in 2005. Is that your sense too? And why do you think that is?

    I have my own thoughts, but I'll wait for your answers.

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  4. Looks like someone has been reading "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"! Coincidentally, I was planning to write something of a similar vein for my own blog, when I noted your post, Gulliver. There's a lot of truth to your commentary. My own town's 4th of July parade featured SFC Leroy Petry as Grand Marshall, which is totally appropriate and a nice way to honor our resident MOH recipient and truly humble warrior. We also included Former POWs, the I Corps Band, and reps from selected military units, but since we border a Joint Base, this is nothing new. On the other hand, there was almost no mention of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or other major symbols of our Republic's beginnings.
    It feels like our society has started to merge most of our holidays into a Veteran's Day amalgam; many folks don't even realize the difference between Memorial Day and Veteran's Day. Perhaps it goes along with the commercializing of our National Holidays, which also dilutes their uniqueness. I agree that if we overlook the significance of our Independence Day, it'll be increasingly easier to forget the sweat equity all citizens need to contribute to keep our hard-won freedoms.

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