Sunday, July 2, 2017

First Amendment Includes Vets?

Sometimes we overlearn lessons.  One of the key lessons from the Vietnam era is that we should not crap on the troops--that we should support them, as they are not responsible for the big decisions.  Yet, as I have argued here often (perhaps yearly), the support our troops mantra does our troops and our country a disservice.  It has become a dynamic where we venerate the troops and veterans and hold them above everyone else.  The thing is: the United States is not a military regime but a democracy, which means that the most basic principles put civilians above the military.  And which civilians?

This tweet starts a storm that provides a hint:
If one examines the First Amendment, one will note that veterans and troops are not mentioned at all.  Who is?  The Press.  Because freedom of the press is fundamental to the maintenance of democracy.  Indeed, all that stuff packed into the first amendment are the most fundamental to the operation of a democratic political system: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly (that means protest to those who are upset at protests), freedom to petition the government (protest gets listed twice!), and that whole separation of church and state.  These come first for a reason--the system will not operate without these freedoms.  The other parts of the Bill of Rights are also important with 2-8 focused on preventing the government from oppressing the people.  I wonder if the founders were at it today would they include something about civilian control of the military?  Or did they just always assume it and would continue to assume it?

Because this veneration of the military is problematic. The idea that we should just trust the generals to make the decisions ignores the very basic reality that democracies only function when there is civilian control of the military.  While we can focus on Trump's attacks on the media and on the #voterfraudfraud efforts to disenfranchise people, I am not sure this other attack on democracy is getting sufficient attention.  Delegating damn near all important decisions either to the generals and admirals or to someone who retired a couple of years ago but still has a military mindset is an abdication of responsibility.  We may get some solace from this because anything that takes decisions out of Trump's hands would seem to be a good thing.  But this is the tyranny of low expectations--that we end up accepting things that are awful, that are destructive of democracy because a supremely unqualified person (who might be compromised by the Russians) is now president.

I say all this in anticipation of the Fourth of July.  I am sure that folks will use this occasion to say nice things about the troops, which would be all well and good if we did not already have ample occasions to do so.  The Fourth of July should be about the Declaration of Independence, about what the revolution was fought for (not just lower taxes and perhaps ignoring smuggling laws), and, yes, the Constitutions and what it stands for.  While this past year or so has reminded us that America's civic nationalism is not as civic and far more ethnic than I would like, what should bind us all together is not that we love our armed forces but that we are skeptical of authority, that we support all kinds of liberties, and that we have much work to do to perfect the union.

So, yes, I think we need to hold our troops accountable as we hold any agent of the government.  Yes, they take great risks on our behalf, but they can also do great damage in our name.  So, let's make sure they get the best health care during and after their service, but let's also not treat them like gods to be worshiped.  Let's instead hold their leadership, civilian and military, responsible for good decisions and bad, so that the sacrifices the troops pay are as few as possible and are worth it.  Escalating damn near every war we are currently involved in is probably not a good way to proceed.  And having the media pay heaps of attention to each of these wars is the best way to assure that whatever escalations get scrutinized, that the strategies and tactics are the most appropriate for advancing the national interest.  Sure, we'd like Congress to do the job of oversight, but they are usually only compelled to do so when the shiny spotlight of the media is on an issue, such as torture in Iraq's prisons.

On Tuesday, let's think of those who make our democracy function and protect our liberties at home--the media, the defense lawyers, the judges (the ones who don't screw up), those who serve in juries, the groups that seek to protect the weak and to maintain our institutions (the ACLU is looking mighty good these days), and, yes, those who research and educate about democracy.  The Trump era makes it abundantly clear that we cannot and should not take for granted that our institutions will operate.  Those institutions only work when individuals and groups support them.  While the media may have screwed up its coverage of the election, we need to support them now as they are necessary for the fight to protect our democracy, more so than probably at any other point in American history.

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