Just a few days ago I took a long drive from Alabama to Colorado. Sometimes, on long drives like this, I’ll quit listening to my CD’s and begin cycling through the local radio stations. When I do listen to the radio, I have this habit, some might call it unhealthy, of listening to right wing talk radio. These programs, by the way, are broadcast nationally, and I could manage to pick them up even in the most rural of areas, where the rest of the radio spectrum was just static. I was listening to one of the speakers go on about challenging Obama’s radical socialist agenda, when he moved on to the upcoming Fourth of July. He reminded all of his listeners to thank a “military member or veteran for our freedoms” this Independence Day. This is all fine in theory. We should be grateful for our military members—if our freedoms are ever truly threatened they will be ready to put their lives on the line. But I always feel a slight twinge when I hear this sort of rhetoric—and I hear it constantly. I like my country, but this is a consistent element of American culture I’ve always been uncomfortable with: the blind adulation of all things military. Have all our national holidays just become occasions to revel in our militarism? Is there no other piece of our society we should be proud of? If all I cared about was worshipping the armed forces I could live in North Korea. I’d like to think America has a little more to offer. As I listened to this talk radio pundit I was immediately reminded of an old quote I recited many times as an Air Force Academy Cadet while I was braced at attention.
It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.
-(Upon doing a little research it turns out there is actually a bit of controversy as to who this quote is from, so I’m not going to bother attaching a name to it)
What a nice little bit of philistinism this is. I always especially hated screaming this quote out while I was in the front leaning rest. I don’t mind the appreciation of a soldier’s willingness to fight, but why is it necessary to adopt a superiority complex towards every other element of our society? This quote strikes me as the kind of thing drill instructors jerk off to at night. I never joined the military with the intention of looking upon the rest of American society with disdain and condescension, and I know many other soldiers who feel the same way. I rather liked the idea of defending a free society, full of artists, journalists, protestors, and environmentalists. I wouldn’t have signed on the dotted line for anything else.
So this Independence Day let’s think of all the other Americans who have given us the freedoms we have today. Regular men took up arms and fought a guerilla war against professional British soldiers to free the American colonies from illegitimate British rule. Groups of active citizens formed the women’s suffrage movement in the 1800’s, and after a long struggle finally won the right for women to vote in 1920. Civil rights activists fought a long campaign beside leaders like Martin Luther King to guarantee black Americans the full legal rights of citizenship. Antiwar protestors, also following the lead of Martin Luther King, eventually managed to end the US assault on Vietnam, a war that claimed the lives of many Americans and many many Vietnamese. As a result of this activism, no American has since had to suffer the injustice of an involuntary draft into the armed forces. Now, thanks to more committed activism we are on the precipice of gay Americans being granted the rights of full citizens, and the legalization of marijuana, a drug far less dangerous than alcohol.
Looking ahead, activists right now are working to end wasteful wars abroad, so that these resources can be used to enrich an ailing American populace.
If the concept of “America” is anything, it is the concept of lofty ideals that were met with inadequate action. Our founding fathers gave us a nation that guaranteed equality under the law, and the right to pursue happiness. But American society at the time was nowhere near realizing those ideals. Since then popular struggles have helped to bring those ideals closer to reality, and to build the relatively humane and civilized society we live in today. There’s no reason to stop now. We should be grateful for what we have while we continue to push for a more just America. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some activists, and I can assure you they sacrifice a lot in the name of a better American society and a better world—and they don’t get any medals pinned to their chests, and they don’t have grandmas thanking them for their service.
So this Independence Day, be grateful to be an American, living in a country that is in many ways more free than many others in the world. Thank a veteran. Thank Smedley Butler, a Marine Corps General turned antiwar activist who foiled a coup against President Roosevelt. Thank an artist for enriching your life. Thank a teacher for helping you learn about your world. Thank a journalist for keeping you informed. Thank Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who exposed a shocking truth when the US Army tried to lie to the American people about the killing of two Reuters journalists. Thank a poet. Thank a video game designer. Thank a pot dealer. Thank Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt for expanding the domains of freedom of speech. Thank a farmer. Thank a musician. Thank an ACLU lawyer. Thank a construction worker. Thank Col Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Colin Powell who has spoken out repeatedly against the Iraq War and current detention practices. Thank a political activist. These are the kinds of people who have built an America worth sacrificing for.