"Id 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, Im 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
Ive 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, its
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 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 governments illegal bombing of Cambodia
were murdered by National Guardsmen. Could one say that the military
was protecting the U.S. governments right to wage war by
shooting its own citizens?
If thats 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
didnt even know they were in the area. The Marines certainly
werent protecting Esequiels 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.
Youre 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
- The military is just following orders from politicians.
A variation is: Politicians are the ones that are really
responsible. Its 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.
Its hard for most people to realize that theyve been
lied to, so it helps to provide examples showing that the military
not only doesnt 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 Pentagons
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 last year. For decades the residents
of Vieques, Puerto Rico, have 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. (Whos 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 youve 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 theyre all a bunch of jerks, but the
country still needs to be protected. If youre invited to
answer the question, "Well, what would you do?" youve
got an invaluable opportunity for education and social change.
Suggested resources for more information: A Peoples
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 (www.comdsd.org).