You may have seen the email pasted below, as it was another of those forward-forward-forward emails. A dear friend -- and fellow USN veteran -- sent me this email some time ago. In this post I want to analyze the email's content in the interest of bringing some of the complexity back to a subject that is often over-simplified.
The purpose of the email is to recognize the men and women of the armed services who have sacrificed their time, and sometimes their health or lives, in the name of the United States of America. In its attempt to achieve this end, however, the email does a disservice to truth by over-simplifying the issues. By "truth" I mean the attempt to represent as accurately as possible the full range of the complex social, cultural, and political threads of our collective history.
The email contains six over-simplified statements that set up false dilemmas. These six examples correlate to constitutional rights provided for in the Bill of Rights [I've identified the particular Amendments in brackets in the email text below]. These rights were not given to us by the military. Some of these rights were negotiated at the time that the Constitution was being drafted in 1787, and these are the original ten Bill of Rights. Other rights had to be won through conflict and struggle of one kind or another: Civil War in the case of the 13th, 14th, & 15th Amendments, ongoing social movements and political pressure in the case of all Amendments.
It is the case the military veterans played an important role in securing fundamental American rights. For example, the Army, Navy, and Marines helped win the Revolutionary War that provided the security in which politicians could gather to draft and debate the Constitution. However, military veterans were not present in large numbers during the Constitution-drafting process itself -- this delegation was also composed of politicians, doctors, brewers, newspapermen, farmers, slave owners, merchants, etc. etc.
The lesson here is that a military could have just as easily provided security for a group of men to come together to establish a dictatorship -- so, military contributions to this process are not in-and-of-themselves a requisite for securing freedoms of any kind. Thus, to say, for example, that "It is the VETERAN, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech," is to lose critical aspects of the story through over-simplification.
Another complication to the simplified storyline presented in the email below is that the same military that helped win the Revolutionary War and helped provide a secure space within which the Constitution could be drafted also provided a secure place within which the institution of slavery could continue. For the rest of the 18th and over half of the 19th century, dedicated groups of citizens organized themselves to abolish slavery. The majority of citizens of the United States during these long decades helped perpetuate slavery, however, either actively or passively, including the institutions of the U.S. military.
Once Abraham Lincoln finally abolished slavery and the Union won the Civil War, it was another century of struggle and strife to overcome the most egregious examples of quasi-slavery in this country, including Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, unequal education, etc., etc. To be sure, at times the U.S. military played an important role in helping propel this agenda, but I would argue that the contributions of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evars, and countless other Civil Rights activists were in most ways more critical in overcoming these inequalities. Therefore, once again, to assert that "It is the VETERAN, not the politician, Who has given us the right to vote," is a gross over-simplification of the historical record.
Whenever I come upon an example of over-simplification such as is represented in the email below, my antennae perk up and I ask myself, "what interests are being served by this incomplete portrayal?"
If members of the U.S. military are sworn to protect the constitution, and the constitution has been drafted (and modified occasionally) to protect the rights of citizens in a democracy, and a democracy ostensibly thrives only when citizens are as informed and educated as possible about whatever it is they're voting on, then it stands to reason that members of the U.S. military are sworn to help ensure that citizens have access to accurate and complete information. Therefore, to misrepresent the complexities of history, politics, and society to construct simplified myths about a military that is supposedly dedicated to serving our complex nation is a disservice to our veterans.
If the military is mythologized in this way, we run the risk of perceiving it as fully outside of the rest of society. If the military is perceived as being outside of society, then it may be given undue deference and preferential treatment that further alienates the military from the society that creates and maintains it. Once this happens, a critical balance of power has shifted, with the possibility that the military then becomes its own center of power, and is no longer answerable to society. What we'd have in this case is a Frankenstein monster, a banana republic situation in which the military has a life of its own and begins to exert its power in non-democratic ways. This is reminiscent of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us of.
I'm not saying that X without fail will lead to Y which then necessarily brings about Z. I'm just saying that we need to be conscious about and careful of the ways in which we choose to simplify & mythologize our national narratives, because it's all fun and games until someone gets an eye out.
Sent: Saturday, May 10, 2008 6:57 AM
Subject: Fw: ONE OF THE BEST EMAILS EVER
MEMORIAL DAY IS COMING-HERE IS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT.
Keep it moving, please, even if you've seen it before.
It is the VETERAN, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion. [1st Amendment]
It is the VETERAN, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. [1st Amendment]
It is the VETERAN, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. [1st Amendment]
It is the VETERAN, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble. [1st Amendment]
It is the VETERAN, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial. [5th, 6th, & 7th Amendments]
It is the VETERAN, not the politician, Who has given us the right to vote. [Not explicitly enumerated in Constitution because power given to the states, but the right to vote is extended by the 14th, 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments]
It is the VETERAN who salutes the Flag,
It is the Veteran who serves under the Flag,
ETERNAL REST GRANT THEM O LORD, AND LET PERPETUAL LIGHT SHINE UPON THEM.
I'd be EXTREMELY proud if this email reached as many as possible. We can be very proud of our young men and women in the service no matter where they serve.
... God Bless them All ..