Saturday, February 28, 2009

Emails about respect for military service people

Of late, it seems that many of my conservative friends and family have seen fit to forward me all sorts of stuff about respect for those who have served and/or are serving today in the military.

I’ve written at some length about my military service elsewhere, so I shan’t repeat all that here. Suffice it to say two things. (1) The views of service people vary considerably from one to the next – there’s no simple way to distill how service people feel about the military and their service within it. In particular, people sending me these emails seem not to grasp how I feel about these topics. (2) My opinions about this are definitely the result of my having been called to service in the time of an unpopular and unnecessary war – in Vietnam.

For a long time, my service in Vietnam was something I felt ashamed of, primarily because I chose the path of not actively opposing the Vietnam War by either refusing to be drafted or by leaving the country for Canada. I felt shame precisely because even before being called to service, it was evident to me that this was a bad war. Allowing myself to be drafted and going into the Army was an act of cowardice – I was afraid to make my actions consistent with my beliefs – a form of hypocrisy. With time, my attitude about my service has changed somewhat. I've forgiven myself for my fear. While I maintain my belief that the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake for the US, I’m no longer ashamed of having done my duty for my country when it called – like my father before me, and my son after me – in a war on foreign soil.

I don’t resent anyone who managed to skate out of military service in a foreign war, but only insofar as they don’t become “chicken hawks” – those who favor US participation in foreign wars so long as they themselves aren’t called to serve in it. I hold all chicken hawks in complete contempt. If you’re not in the ranks volunteering to do your duty in such a war, then you have no right to ask anyone else to make the sacrifices you’re unwilling to make.

Because the Vietnam War became an unpopular war, many of us who served in the military at the time were subjected to various forms of disrespect. It was a bad time to be a service member. In recent years, it seems that civilian attitudes toward the military have changed dramatically, even including civilians who might oppose US participation in a foreign war. The phrase is “You can hate the war, but you shouldn't hate the warriors.” I believe in that principle, and I certainly don’t need an onslaught of email forwards espousing this position to influence my decision to follow that admonition. Whatever we might think about the political basis for a war on foreign soil, we should honor the sacrifices made on our behalf by our young men and women.

However, I believe we also should honor the sacrifices made by people whose beliefs cause them to refuse military service. From where I sit, conscientious objectors reflect the high ideals many of us claim to have. If, as has happened in the past, they’re prosecuted for their beliefs, then even though we may not believe as they do, we should honor the courage of their convictions.

Obviously, I already believe we should honor all those who served our country in all foreign wars in the past, popular or not. I need no email message chiding me to have respect for WWII and Korean War veterans. I understand them a lot better than many of those who’ve sent me these emails but who've never served in the US military.

Frankly, I’m more than a little tired of receiving these email forwards. Many of them carry implicit messages with which I definitely disagree. For instance, although burning the American flag is something I would never do, it’s my opinion that American service people gave their lives to protect the right for Americans to express themselves freely. Burning a flag is a symbol of protest, and it shouldn’t be considered a crime, ever. If we get to the point where a symbolic act becomes a crime, then the sacrifices by our service members in the past will have been in vain. Freedom of expression is, perhaps more than any other principle of American democracy, the most precious of our rights here in the USA. I’m quite willing to let anyone with beliefs and viewpoints different from my own express those opinions, but I’m becoming concerned about the belligerence and implied violence against those with different beliefs that often lurks just below the surface of many so-called “conservative” Americans. Expression of opposition to government policies and activities is a necessary component of American democracy and is at the heart of what is good about the USA. If you don’t like what I say, then you’re free to disagree, but you should be willing to defend my right to say it – anything less than that is pure hypocrisy.

1 comment:

RJ Evans said...

Well said Chuck! The following is a quote from Thomas Jefferson:

"There are rights which it is useless to surrender to the government and which governments have yet always been found to invade. These are the rights of thinking and publishing our thoughts by speaking or writing; the right of free commerce; the right of personal freedom. There are instruments for administering the government so peculiarly trustworthy that we should never leave the legislature at liberty to change them. The new Constitution has secured these in the executive and legislative department, but not in the judiciary. It should have established trials by the people themselves, that is to say, by jury. There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot but in well-defined cases. Such an instrument is a standing army." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789. ME 7:323