[Editors’ note: Football quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand when the national anthem is played at football games has intensified the debate over racial injustice in the U.S. Many have responded positively to his message, but others have claimed that his method of protest is disrespectful of members of the military who, they argue, are the ones who guarantee our freedom to protest. We don’t see how Colin’s actions are disrespectful of military members, but even more troubling to us is the frequent assertion that the U.S. military is the protector of our freedom. Because this is such a powerful mythology, we decided to reprint this 2003 article from Draft NOtices.]
“I’d like to thank our military personnel for defending our country and protecting our freedoms." In the wake of September 11, this is a common public acknowledgment from celebrities, politicians, myriad TV and radio commentaries, and many people on the streets of the United States.
As a Navy veteran, whenever I hear statements like these, I think, "What are they talking about? Since when does the military have anything to do with freedom?" If I make this statement out loud, I’m often told that the military protects my right to criticize the U.S. government and the military. I use such circumstances as an opportunity to educate people who believe that the military protects our freedoms. Here is one blueprint I’ve used successfully in conversations with friends, family and even strangers to shift the conversation.
History is a powerful place to begin, and many people know little about how the U.S. government has repeatedly used its military against its own citizens. In 1877, for example, railroad workers went on strike to protest pay cuts, profiteering by the railroads, and unsafe working conditions that led to injury, dismemberment, and death. The U.S. Army was deployed to crush the union strikers. Collusion played a major role, since the railroads loaned the U.S. government the money to pay the Army officers (but not the enlisted men). What this means is that the Army was protecting the railroad barons’ right to harm and exploit their workers. For those who might protest that this was a long time ago, it’s important to point out that these early actions set the precedents for continued use of the military against U.S. citizens, and then proceed with the history lesson.
In the summer of 1932, the worst year of the Depression, 25,000 penniless WWI veterans and their families camped out in shacks and abandoned buildings in Washington, D.C., to ask Congress for their veterans’ bonus to feed their starving children. Eventually, President Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to attack and disperse them. After charging the ragged group of men, women, and children with tanks, tear gas, and bayonets, the Army leveled and torched the camp. There were more than 100 casualties, including two babies. This assault against U.S. citizens was led by General Douglas MacArthur, who was aided by future General George Patton and future general and president Dwight Eisenhower. The military violently denied the rights of U.S. citizens to exercise free speech and petition the government — it was not protecting those rights.
It can be useful to ask people who believe that the military protects our freedoms why it was necessary, as late as the 1960s, to have a movement seeking to secure constitutional rights for people of color. It was civilians at that time who, at great sacrifice, struggled to bring about a change. In fact, it has almost always been civilians, through grassroots movements, who have fought for our rights and freedoms in this country, while the military has supported the system that, among other things, profited from slavery, practiced genocide against native people, denied the female half of the population their right to vote, and prevented people of color from getting civil rights protection.
Another infamous use of the military in that era was at Kent State University. Four college students who were protesting the Viet Nam War and the government’s illegal bombing of Cambodia were murdered by National Guardsmen. Could one say that the military was protecting the U.S. government’s right to wage war by shooting its own citizens?
If that’s still not current enough, you can ask about Esequiel. "Essay what?" is the usual response I get. In 1997 Esequiel Hernandez, Jr., a U.S. citizen, was murdered by U.S. Marines patrolling the border with Mexico while he was herding sheep in Texas. An investigation revealed not only that the Marines’ claim that Esequiel was shooting at them was bogus, but that he probably didn’t even know they were in the area. The Marines certainly weren’t protecting Esequiel’s right to life.
At any point in the discussion military supporters are likely to challenge my points. Here are a few examples:
- The military has been around for over two hundred years. You’re just pointing out a few instances where it has acted improperly. Actually, these are only a few examples, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other cases. One of the reasons that some early government leaders wanted a strong central government was to have enough military power to respond to uprisings among the citizens, and the government has regularly used the military for such control throughout the entire history of the U.S.
- The military is just following orders from politicians. A variation is: Politicians are the ones that are really responsible. It’s true that politicians are often the people who give the military the authority to commit reprehensible acts. This gives me an opportunity to talk about the "military-industrial complex" — the term used to describe the relationships among the military, politicians, weapons manufacturers, and other transnational corporate interests (particularly oil corporations). In this system the Pentagon, military contractors, and other corporations all use enormous political pressure and financial incentives to influence politicians to act in their best interests. Another feature of the system is that high-ranking military personnel make decisions that are profitable for weapons manufacturers, and when their military careers are over, many of these former Pentagon decision-makers take well-paying positions with military contractors as executives, lobbyists, or consultants, and some go into politics. The corporations need wars — declared or undeclared — to keep making the money that benefits the insiders in this system.
It’s hard for most people to realize that they’ve been lied to, so it helps to provide examples showing that the military not only doesn’t protect our rights, it actually restricts them. In the 1980s, peace and anti-militarism groups seeking to counter military recruiters had to go to court in several cities after being denied the same access to public high schools that was granted to the military. In San Diego and Atlanta the cases went to federal appellate courts, where it was argued that under the Constitution, equal access must be given to both sides once a forum on a controversial political issue has been created by public school officials. The U.S. military moved to intervene in both of these cases so it could use its vast legal and financial resources to influence the decisions. The Pentagon succeeded in intervening in the Atlanta case, which was still decided in favor of the counter-recruitment group but with very narrow parameters set for equal access. In the San Diego case, the Pentagon’s motion to intervene was rejected on a technicality, allowing a court ruling to stand that granted the broadest access rights to counter-recruiters. This outcome did not erase the fact that the military acted to limit, not guarantee, free speech.
Another example of the military deterring free speech rights occurred when the U.S. Marines banned the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities from participating in the 1998 San Diego Youth Summit held at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Against the wishes of the civilians who organized the event, the Marine Corps refused to allow a group that promoted peace and social change to express its views.
Yet another example of military anti-democratic assault on the rights of U.S. citizens occurred in 2001. For decades the residents of Vieques, Puerto Rico, had been trying to get the Navy to cease bombing exercises, clean up its toxic waste, and leave the island (see Draft NOtices, July-August 2000). Following intense pressure from the people of Vieques and their supporters, President Clinton issued a directive that a referendum would be held to allow the people of Vieques to vote on whether the Navy should stay or leave. Unfortunately, Clinton allowed the Navy to determine when the referendum would be held. (Who’s in charge here? Certainly not the people.) The Navy scheduled the referendum for November 5, 2001, and public sentiment clearly showed that the Navy would have been voted out. Not surprisingly, the Navy decided to postpone the referendum, clearly suppressing civilian rights.
If you’ve made it this far in a discussion with a military supporter, you can point out that in all of these examples, what the military was really protecting was wealthy people in privileged positions and their opportunity to expand their power and/or profiteer from war without the inconvenience of dissenting voices and Constitutional restrictions. Sometimes this is enough for your discussion partner to acknowledge that they’re all a bunch of jerks, but the country still needs to be protected. If you’re invited to answer the question, "Well, what would you do?" you’ve got an invaluable opportunity for education and social change. Use it!
Suggested resources for more information: A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn; Deterring Democracy, Noam Chomsky; Derailing Democracy, David McGowan; Free Speech TV, Ch. 9415 on Dish Network Satellite, www.freespeech.org; Democracy Now! on selected radio stations around the country and on the Web at www.democracynow.org.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/).