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by Bruce A. Clark
The United States is, has always been, and if most of us have a say in it, will always be a civilian country. However, that doesnít mean that there isnít a danger of military dictatorship. I think that there are some fundamental misunderstandings about this principle in parts of the population, and they need to be clarified.
Some founders of this country distrusted the whole idea of the nation maintaining a standing army. They had seen the numerous wars in which the European countries had been more or less continuously involved, and figured that if they prohibited the United States from maintaining a standing army, perhaps the country could be spared that type of constant conflict. They also felt that having such a military apparatus constantly available might be a spur to entering into military adventures abroad. But, after much discussion, when they wrote the Constitution, they made it optional. Article 1 gives the Congress the power to raise an army, maintain a navy and to declare war.
Their wariness was justified. This country has engaged in one foreign adventure after another over the years, very few of which involved an actual defense of the United States. Propping up the dictators of banana republics so that big businesses can generate profits there is not national defense! Neither is interfering in the self-determination of other countries.
The founders were careful, however, to make the military always subservient to, and a tool of, the civilian authority. The military has no legal power to do anything, including to financially sustain itself, with out civilian approval. Thatís not to say that it hasnít tried, though. It has, and the frequency and severity of these attempts are, I think, increasing. Indeed, one president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a military man with a distinguished career, felt the need to warn the citizenry of the danger in a speech upon leaving office. He said, ďIn the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.Ē
Part of the danger is obvious to anyone who looks: businesses that provide goods and services to the military have an incestuous relationship with the Pentagon, and there is a revolving door of employment and influence between the two. The other part is more subtle, and pressure on the country comes from people who served in the military, and their families and supporters.
Lest anyone think I am anti-military or anti-veteran, I feel compelled to say the following. My dad was a World War II veteran. He was drafted into the U. S. Army shortly after Pearl Harbor, served for the duration, and got well acquainted with the hellholes of the South Pacific. His Army unit, along with some others, were annexed into the First Marine Division. The totality was referred to as the First Marine Division Reinforced. They were in Guadalcanal, Bougainville, New Caledonia, New Guinea, Fiji, and Cebu in the Philippines, and thatís just what I know about. (He wouldnít talk much about many of his experiences, and it took some coaxing to get what I got.) He was always annoyed that all of the soldiers did the work and suffered the pain, but the Marines got all of the credit. Through the course of all of that, he was awarded three Bronze Stars. I was always proud of him and what he did. He was a man of good character in all ways and has been the person I hold as my ideal. I was very moved when his comrades, members of his unitís veterans association, came to his funeral in uniform and honored him.
I donít mean to slight my mother. She graduated from state teachers college a few years before the war, working her way through as a grocery cashier. During the war, however, she was in the trenches here at home. Some of the time, she was an inspector at some war facility at M.I.T.; she never told me exactly what she inspected. Also, she worked at an explosives facility in southeastern Massachusetts. She poured molten TNT and related compounds like tetryl into artillery shells. Pretty scary!
Unfortunately, itís more than pride in a job well-done thatís at work with certain current and former members of the military. Many veterans feel that they deserve more than just thanks for answering what they felt was their countryís call. They think that they should have some extra say in what the country does, because they are military veterans. I couldnít disagree more!
Some of the activities of American veterans were not pretty. I donít know if it is still true, but the constitution of the American Legion, when founded, stated that one of its goals was to oppose labor unions, and they carried it out in practice. In 1923, the Legion invited Mussolini to speak at its San Francisco convention. The legionís National Commander, Alvin Owsley,† stated: ďDo not forget that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.Ē This attitude is why members of the Legion were deputized here and there to break strikes, involved in the lynching of a member of the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) in a union struggle in the state of Washington and in other infamous activities.
Later, in 1949, union supporter and African-American singer Paul Robeson was scheduled to sing a concert in Peekskill, N.Y., but it was broken up by locals. They burned a cross on a hill near the site and shouted slogans like ďCommieĒ and ďDirty Kikes,Ē threw rocks and beat attendees with bats, injuring thirteen seriously. The American Legion, Peekskill Post 274, commander said, ďOur objective was to prevent the Paul Robeson concert and I think our objective was reached.Ē
Another concert was scheduled later, and it went smoothly because it was ringed by union members as a defense guard. Afterwards was a different story. Police forced the 20,000 leaving concert-goers into a miles-long gauntlet of goons from the VFW, American Legion, and others. The thugs shouted racist epithets and threw rocks through the windows and windshields of departing cars and buses, injuring more than 140. So much for the self-proclaimed defenders of freedom and liberty! The opposition to unions by the American Legion is memorialized in union songs and history.
I hope Iím not interpreted as saying that all vets are of the same mold, and I beg the forbearance of all of those veterans who maintain an independence of mind. Most Americans find such gangster-type activities repulsive. I would hope that veterans, who have taken an oath to support and uphold the U.S. Constitution, would feel that way about trying to abrogate the liberties of other Americans. I would also hope that they would speak out loudly when someone violates the fundamental liberties of others. Where one fits on the political spectrum is irrelevant; center, right, left, the Bill of Rights belongs to all of us. Whether it is objecting to activities such as I listed above or to the equally infernal attitude of the people who push the policy of gun control, all of our liberties need to be defended if this country is to become what it was designed to be.
Unfortunately, it seems that many vets are in the category of falling into line behind government policy, especially when it comes to war, and allow themselves to be whipped up into a lather by disreputable politicians and demagogues. We saw this all too clearly during and after the Vietnam War, where the expression ďAmerica, Love It or Leave ItĒ came from. Some GIís who did speak out against the war were put on trial in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. This attitude continued with the thoroughly dishonest attacks against John Kerry, a spokesman for veterans against the war, decades later. Disagreeing with a candidate is one thing; slandering one is quite another.
What is the reason for so many military veterans holding such similar opinions? Prior military and civilian experiences will differ widely, as will educational background. What do they have in common? Only training and the subjection to orders from above would be common to all. In modern times, at least, one goal of military training is to break down a soldierís individuality. The military wants him or her to be part of a team, and to take orders without question. While that aspect probably has certain benefits in fighting a war, itís not particularly compatible with creating good citizens. In a functioning democracy, citizens should be independent, thinking for themselves. Given the training, isolation and propaganda to which U.S. soldiers are subject, itís understandable that not all escape the pressure to toe the line drawn for them by current and former brass.
Government policy sends the country to war now and then. Some≠times, however, the policy and the war are a very bad choice. Itís always a matter of opinion, of course, like everything else political. Some agree, some donít; itís a good thing that such matters are subject to debate. Unfortunately, some Americans, dis≠pro≠por≠tion≠ately veterans, think that there should be no choice: once the country goes to war, the entire country should fall in line behind the decision, as they do. Obviously, I disagree. But, since those in the armed forces are subject to orders, and often to conscription, I wouldnít think of blaming soldiers for the bad policy of war. My natural feeling is that soldiers are victims of bad government policy when a bad or unjust war is undertaken. (There was a lot of noise, during the Vietnam war, about anti-war protesters supposedly spitting on veterans returning from combat. I have not seen a shred of evidence that such an incident ever took place. However, if it did, I would be opposed to it.)
There is a flip side to this outlook, though. It seems reasonable to me that if soldiers, on duty or veterans, choose to make an issue of the politics involved and take a side on what, constitutionally, is a civilian decision, then I donít think it is so far-fetched to ask them to accept part of the blame for the war, including for those killed in it. They would be taking themselves out of the category of victim and putting themselves on the side of the perpetrator. They canít have it both ways: If they accept that itís a civilian decision, they arenít to blame. But if they choose to take sides, simply by virtue of having been in uniform, then they canít avoid being tarred with that brush. If they going to make the bed, then they will have to lie in it.
While having military and ex-military people enter into the countryís debates in some sort of uniform bloc is undesirable, at least their situation is understandable, and the participants can change if they choose to.
It is reprehensible, however, for some politicians and talk radio demagogues try to use the opinions of on-duty military and veterans to beat down folks with different views. Those manipulators first try to portray those with military associations as some epitome of patriotism, and then use that masquerade against the rest of society to move it in some direction that it might not want to go. First, being in the military doesnít make one better, nor more patriotic. For example, I contend that when I was organizing against the Vietnam war I was serving my country at least as well as any soldier fighting there. American principles favor self-determination, but that war was just slaughter on both sides, to prevent the Vietnamese from choosing their own future. Nothing good would have come from the war even if the United States won it, so no amount of fighting, killing or dying would have improved this country at all.
Whether a person supports or opposes a policy in which the military is being used as a tool of the government, it has little or nothing to do with patriotism. If one is motivated to advance the ideals of this country and see them prosper and triumph, one is patriotic, regardless of how one feels about the use of the military here or there. The members of the military are Americans, too, and should be as respected as any citizen respects another, no more and no less. Many Americans are daily making sacrifices and helping others to try to make this country as great as it can be, and most of them donít wear a uniform.
Second, the expression ďsupport our troopsĒ is a slick but underhanded slogan to try to pressure people to show support for government policies which they oppose. It is pure sleaze to try to push people by using such devices.
Third, declaring that all soldiers are heroes diminishes the real acts of individual heroism that take place. What distinction is there in a medal if all soldiers are called heroes? None.
To keep with the foundersí wishes, the military should be kept as far as possible from policy making. The country needs to be as civilian as possible. To do otherwise is to move toward a military dictatorship, and the current worship of the military by many is a definite step in that direction.
Those who find themselves participating in the national debates as a group of military and ex-military, versus civilians, would do well to reconsider their positions and ideals. Just as many people would like to see immigrants leave their self-imposed ghettos and mix with American society, so it is that military people and veterans should stop thinking like soldiers and participate in the democracy as individual, civilian citizens.