“You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. (…) You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. (…) I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way…”
- Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men
Anti-war activists are sometimes scolded that they owe their freedom to speak out against war to the very soldiers they are implicitly or explicitly criticizing. This is meant to silence opposition to war by making it appear self-contradictory.
However, for a very long time, American wars have only been foreign wars. None of these wars (especially not the most recent ones) have been in defense against foreign conquest of our homeland. Rather, the wars were themselves invasions and conquests of the homelands of others.
Moreover, the wars have not diminished, but multiplied our foreign enemies. They have toppled non-threats, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and created new actual threats, like Al Qaeda in Iraq, which evolved into ISIS and Syrian Al Qaeda. Amid the chaos that U.S. wars have created, such groups have thrived and grown explosively.
Yet even so, the chief threat to our freedoms is our own government, not any foreign foe. And if anything, the activity of soldiers has contributed to, not defended against, that threat.
Randolph Bourne famously wrote, “War is the health of the State.” By that he meant that foreign wars nourish domestic tyranny because they place people into a siege mentality that makes them more apt to give up their freedoms for the sake of the war effort. And indeed, the American national security state, from militarized cops to domestic spying, has metastasized under the cover of the War on Terror.
So, no, the activity of U.S. soldiers has not secured our freedoms, but eroded them. More specifically, contrary to the common argument discussed above, the troops are not busy protecting freedom of speech for all Americans, including those who are anti-war. Rather, by contributing to foreign wars, they make it more likely that someday the country’s siege mentality will get so bad that speech (especially anti-war speech) will be restricted.
Since foreign wars are inimical to domestic freedom, it is those who strenuously oppose war who are actually fighting for freedom. If not for opponents and skeptics of war, we would have even more war than we do. And in that case, individual freedoms would have been even more infringed upon.
This is especially true for soldiers. If we were even more mired in war, soldiers would have longer and more frequent tours of duty and be more likely to be conscripted in a backdoor draft. They would also be more likely to face combat, and thus more likely to be traumatized, maimed, or killed.
It is anti-war, not pro-war civilians who truly support the troops. And it is anti-war activists who strive to secure the freedoms (and lives) of imperial troopers, not the other way around.
On Veterans Day, thank veterans of the anti-war movement for their service, especially if you made the mistake (perhaps with the best intentions) of enlisting in the war machine. But don’t bother thanking them with words. The best way to thank them is by joining them in the struggle for peace. Then a year from today, from the bottom of our hearts, we can all thank you.