Wednesday, May 7, 2014

When Freedom Becomes another Word for Empire

We have special times in which we appropriately honor those soldiers who have served our country. Veteran’s Day in November is a day to honor those who have served in the military. There are also those times when we particularly honor and pay tribute to those soldiers who have died in the line of duty, paying the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Memorial Day, coming up later this month is a day to honor the fallen. I should state at the outset that I am opposed to war and have often stated that opposition in my blog posts. Last year in the essay, “On the Waging of War,” I outlined my opposition to drone warfare as well as my stance against war in general. While I believe that we should honor those who serve in the military, and I am truly grateful for their service, I believe that war, especially in the modern era, is not the best option and is never an ethical choice. The Quakers have rightly stood as reminders to society that there are better ways than war to resolve conflict.   

Rumors of War

I came of age during the Viet Nam War (we stopped calling them wars after WWII, but then when we look back on them we realize they were wars, regardless of what we called them at the time, but that’s a story for another essay). During the Viet Nam conflict our country was torn. Some thought we were fighting communism, some thought we had no business meddling in another country half-way around the world. Many were worried about being drafted into military service. Congress, for the first (and only) time made the National Guard  a refuge for the favored sons so that they could appear to be fulfilling their military service without having to actually fight overseas. We later found out that it was not a threat of communism, but a trumped up incident at the Gulf of Tonkin along with a military leadership that was eager to flex its muscle that plunged us into a long war that took the lives of many and left many more scarred – not to mention the devastation visited upon the Vietnamese people.

Today, we seem to be in a constant state of war. We have a populace that sincerely, and rightly, wishes to honor the brave men and women who serve our country in the military. Yet at the same time there is not the political will to challenge the country’s leadership about why we are fighting. It occurred to me about a year ago that something was sadly amiss when I watched a news release about Prince Harry laying a wreath at Arlington Cemetery. Prince Harry of Wales (Captain Wales in the British army) laid a wreath with the message, “To my comrades-in-arms of the United States of America, who have paid the ultimate price in the cause of freedom.” That is when it came to me that today freedom has become just another word for empire.

It is not, after all, freedom that we are fighting for.  Freedom for the American people was not truly at stake. It is not for freedom around the world for which we send our military troops. It is for the protection of what is deemed to be vital U.S. interests that we are now sacrificing our youth and our treasure. That vital U.S. interest translates into what is best for corporate America, as in access to oil. If there had actually ever been any threat to our country, would the general populace not have been asked to make some sacrifices for the effort, instead of being told to just go shopping?

Early Protests

We heard some protests back before the U.S. entered into war with Iraq. “No Blood of Oil” was the slogan, and the country was pretty much evenly divided over whether we should invade Iraq. There were marches in Washington, D.C. and across the country, but they got little media coverage. Today, it is pretty clear that the war in Iraq was another case of trumped up claims and false pretenses. Since that day, with the on-going conflict in Afghanistan, we seem to be unable to extricate ourselves from military action in that region. Our current president continues to allow drone missile strikes in Pakistan as part of some nebulous “war on terror,” yet we are participating in much of that terror by killing innocent civilians in a country where we are not even engaged in military conflict. For whatever reason, even a president who campaigned on a sincere desire to end the war cannot get us out of armed conflict. Our young soldiers continue to be called to tours of duty overseas. 

Our own freedom in this country was not at issue. The political leadership stoked national fears by saying that we needed to engage the enemy over there in order to keep from have to engage them here at home. The result of engaging the enemy over there has only increased the likelihood of terrorism here at home, yet we continue with military action that includes boots on the ground and drones in the air.  Freedom has become just another word for Empire, and we are now expected to serve that Empire without question – because it would be “short-sighted” and “unpatriotic” to question this country’s military involvement.

A Conflicted Sense of Honor and Duty

I believe that our soldiers should be honored for their bravery, their efforts, and for the hardships they and their families endure. I have colleagues at work who are in the National Guard and the Reserves who have been called to duty in Afghanistan, and before that to Iraq. They are fine people and they represent the true substance of American life.  My conflict is that I do not think that our young soldiers, who are revved up, dedicated, and ready to give their best for our country should be called up to serve in wars that are unnecessary and which are not even in our best national interests. It is as though our national consciousness cannot imagine anything but armed conflict in response to global challenges.

What’s more, our congress, which asks such sacrifice from its soldiers, is not willing to fund legislation to appropriately care for wounded soldiers and their families. Instead, we see commercials from non-profit groups appealing to the public for money so that they can help to rehabilitate wounded soldiers. Why shouldn’t our government, which asks soldiers to give their all, step up to care for those wounded in service to their country? Instead, our country makes use of the kindness and empathy of its citizens, asking us all to donate.  It is bad enough that the down-and-out, those lost on the streets, must rely upon charity. It hurts that dogs in animal shelters are at the mercy of our charitable acts. It is unconscionable that our own soldiers must rely upon that same well of charitable giving for their own well-being.    

Few of us ordinary citizens have felt the brunt of war that soldiers and their families have experienced. Politicians have carried on with business as usual. Corporations have actually prospered, yet there is no call to come to the aid of those soldiers who are fighting corporate America’s wars. Some corporations actually shift operations overseas to avoid paying taxes which could support some patriotic efforts toward our veterans. We have become that military-industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned, chewing up citizens in the name of patriotism, offering meager help to those cast aside in service to the country.

Are We Powerless to Question Authority?

We have never spoken more loudly of freedom, honor and patriotism. Never have flags been waved so wildly. Never have we been more vocal in our words of thanks to our soldiers. Yet we have turned freedom into just another word for Empire – an empire that demands patriotism and service and which tolerates no challenge to its agenda. Indeed, we are often threatened with fear of losing our standard of living, and, yes, a fear of losing our freedom if we do not meet “the enemy” with sufficient force “over there.”

I’m sorry, but never in my life time have the words “Thank you for your service” been so painful. We are all genuinely thankful for our young men and women in the military, yet we are powerless to stop the war machine as it continues to call up our sons and daughters to dangerous and questionable service.  In our fearful fight for country, we have exchanged the joy of freedom for the oppression of Empire.   

Photos: Tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery
            Public Domain
            Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

            Peace Rally in Sacramento, CA, 2003, prior to Iraq invasion
            Public Domain
            Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


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