In Service to a Nation

One of many reasons people have for joining the military is to serve their country. The dedication and willing self-sacrifice of those who serve in this way should never be sneered at or belittled. However, theirs is not the only way to serve. There are all kinds others, activism of various sorts being one and artistic expression being another.

When those involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960's faced police, fire hoses, dogs, angry mobs and individuals, and jail cells, risking ridicule and insult, beatings, arrest, and even death for the sake of justice, they were serving their country. As feminists have brought the vote to women, fought for equality in education, broadened the ranks of the workforce, stood against rape and sexual harassment, and asserted women's ownership of their own bodies, possessions, and lives, they have given service to their country. Whenever gay rights activists challenge gender roles, assert the right to privacy, remain visible in spite of danger, refuse to give up custody and raising of their children, and insist on due acknowledgment of the right to marry, the nation is served. When poets, painters, and playwrights create and display their art, even when it's controversial, this is service to the nation. We are who we are and have what we have in this country because of the efforts and contributions of all these people, as well as countless others like them.

There is an unnecessary misunderstanding and distrust that often crops up between those whose service is in the armed forces and those whose service is peace activism. This is not only because some soldiers may have difficulty understanding opposition to what they do, but also because activists have sometimes handled their efforts to stop war poorly and conducted themselves very badly. This has not always been the case, but something is definitely wrong when a person makes no distinction between a government and an individual or between one individual and another. This kind of failure to distinguish and its associated ugly behavior left a bitter taste in the mouths of many by the time the Vietnam War was over.

Just as peace activists have sometimes devalued soldiers, soldiers have also sometimes devalued peace activists. A person joining the military makes a legally binding promise to go where she or he is sent and to do as she or he is ordered. This is a commitment made in good faith, with this individual trusting the government and upper ranks to make wise decisions and give appropriate direction. It's the job of the peace activist to hold those in authority to that. Whether those who oppose a military action are right or wrong to be against it, if they're people of conscience, they must speak out so that human beings on neither side of the conflict suffer needlessly. Why should anyone's life be thrown away for the sake of error or greed? Shouldn't we be sure a cause is just and an action both proper and necessary before we engage? If we thought it was to begin with and have since learned otherwise, shouldn't we put a stop to what we're doing? And it's not just about war. In general, it's the responsibility of the citizenry to keep the government accountable. Governments are run by people. People are imperfect and have all sorts of personal and political agendas. Many mean well and do well. Some mean well and do poorly. Some don't mean well at all. Only keeping our leaders under scrutiny by the populace prevents those who might do harm from ruining the country and makes it so that those who can do good are able. Accountability of the government to the people is one of the major principles upon which our nation was founded. This is one of the main reasons why American soldiers fought and died in the first place.

So, you see, I'm not discounting the contributions of soldiers. But the reason we have freedom of speech in America to this day is not simply because soldiers died for that right. It's also because ordinary civilians, many of whom may never have served in the armed forces at all, at any point in their lives, insist on it. And, yes, some of them have died for it. If we didn't do this, even by sometimes saying some very unpopular things, our own government and fellow citizens would take that right away from us. We have rights of all sorts in this country because we make it happen ourselves, right here at home. Everyday people prevent the constitution from becoming a worthless piece of paper, either ignored outright or amended unto total self-contradiction and utter uselessness. Soldiers may be among those who protect our borders and our interests abroad (and let's not forget people like our ambassadors here), but we all create together a nation that's worth protecting. If a country is run by a tyrant who guts our way of life, it makes no difference whether that tyrant is foreign or domestic.

And this is how it is all over the world. Nobody has freedom if they don't insist on it themselves. Others can lend support or be an example, but nobody else can simply hand it to them.

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