SELLING MILITARISM ON AMERICA’S DEFINING HOLIDAY
For me, Independence Day is the most disappointing holiday. It has become a celebration of militarism rather than a day to memorialize the founding of our nation and to reflect upon the principles on which our nation was founded. Come July 4th we will be inundated with an endless litany of social media memes, political speeches, and professions of adulation for the troops. We will be reminded time and again how we should thank soldiers for giving us the rights and the freedoms we enjoy. Independence Day has become a celebration of the soldier and a great propaganda moment for militarism. It has, in essence, become less a celebration and more a collective act of brainwashing. At best, attaching militarism to Independence Day is a shallow reading of the history.
The Independence Day that we celebrate is, in fact, not a commemoration of a military event as is Cinco de Mayo, or even Bastille Day. July 4th, or July 2nd for those purists, was a political moment, even a philosophical exercise, but not a military act and not the result of soldiers on the battle field. It was the day on which The Declaration of Independence was signed. The Declaration officially declared colonial independence from the United Kingdom, listed the grievances of the colonies toward the crown, and expressed a philosophy for a republican form of government based on Enlightenment principles. It was not even, strictly speaking, a declaration of war.
True enough, military force was put into play in order to effect the goals of the founders, but military force was not the beginning nor the end of the story. Many civilians had to sacrifice, especially women who held down the domestic arena, often under military occupation. Writers and philosophers like Thomas Paine kept revolutionary ideals alive, even helped to apply pressure on the English Parliament. Civilian seamen known as privateers served on the seas. Investors and businessmen kept the economy going. The challenge of independence was shared.
Indeed, the founding fathers were wary of a strong military influence in the country. In fact, one of the leading causes of the Revolution was increased militarism on the part of Britain with regard to her colonies. With that in mind, most of the revolutionary leadership preferred to fight the war using citizen militias rather than a standing army. Once the war was won, many military positions were decommissioned and the military broken down to a minimal force. Standing armies were correctly understood to be a threat to liberty, not its safeguard. James Madison stated unambiguously, “The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.” The military was not to be trusted even if it was a necessary evil.
Yet today, this standard position of the founding fathers is considered apostasy. None dare question the centrality of the military to American Life. The military is credited as the source of all freedom and rights. To criticize the military is to spit on America itself. The phrase, “to serve one’s country,” is universally acknowledged to mean participating in the armed forces. This is not to be questioned.
Of course, this is a clear misreading of history. Those very freedoms that we most cherish as Americans were not the result of military action overall. We owe our freedoms to an active citizenry. If anything, war and the military have been obstacles to freedom, not sources of it.
For instance, in no historical sense do we owe even a single recognized right to military action. Those soldiers who sacrificed so much on the battlefields of the American Revolution were hardly better off under the new government than they were under the crown. In fact, many were worse off upon returning to fallow and indebted farms. Bankers had little understanding for unpaid mortgages predicated on nothing more specious than fighting for independence. They wanted their money. Debtors under the leadership of Daniel Shays and Luke Day rebelled against an American government seemingly controlled by the bankers. It was this act of civil disobedience that inspired our founders to delineate a Bill of Rights. This was over ten years after the Revolution.
Even at that, these rights were not universally applied. Women, African Americans, Native Americans, those without property, were denied basic national privileges. Nor did the War of 1812 do much to help the state of most groups within the United States. The War of 1812, started mostly by the United States, is this nation’s only example of the military defending the country and the rights enshrined in the Constitution. All of the many wars, both declared and undeclared, that followed the War of 1812 were nothing more than extensions or consequences of political power plays–yes, even World War II. It’s hard to point to any particular group that benefited from the War of 1812 other than the already empowered. Indeed, Native Americans and slaves were considerably worse off.
What did improve during this time, however, was the expansion of suffrage to all males of age regardless of property status. This was a rational response to party politics in which voting mattered. That political party, in this case the Democratic Republicans, to most actively enfranchise the most people had a clear advantage. Despite the expansion of male suffrage, there were limits beyond which even the most ambitious party was not willing to cross.
The end of slavery probably has the best claim to a military heritage, namely the Civil War and Military Reconstruction. Even in this case, however, the ending slavery was the result of decades of civic organizing and claims-making on the part of the growing abolitionist movement. True enough, the victory at Antietam gave President Lincoln cover to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, but even this limited decree would not have been possible without popular support and the political posturing of the Radical Republicans. The Thirteenth Amendment was put in motion when the Civil War was all but won and enacted after the end of hostilities. Military Reconstruction was necessary to begin the changes necessary to liberate millions of former slaves in a land resistant to such changes. It is true that once Military Reconstruction ended life became more difficult for African Americans in the South. However, the ongoing civil rights battle has been led by civilian actors, not the military. In many cases, the military in the form of the National Guard was used to quell civil rights movements, not to protect their rights.
The military was also used to put down other movements intent on expanding rights in the United States. The Great Uprising of 1877 and The Great Coal Uprising of the early 20th century were examples of military might being used to put down people demanding union and labor rights. When these rights were finally realized by the 1930’s it was the result of citizen movements, not force of arms. The National Guard was later used to interfere with civil rights and peace movements in the 50’s and 60’s.
One is hard pressed to identify a single right that was gained through militarism. It is not, however, difficult to identify rights lost to militarism. From the loss of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Sedition and Espionage Acts of World War I, Japanese and Italian internment and isolation during World War II, COINTELPRO emerging from the Cold War and the Patriot Act and Homeland Security Act at the opening of this century. The military and the mindset that promotes military ideas, militarism, is no protection for rights or for the American Way of life.
The founding fathers were correct in their wariness of expansionary military power. President Eisenhower reflected that concern when he warned us against the growing power of what he called the military industrial complex. Militarism was targeted for special scorn and resistance during the movements of the 1960’s that highlighted by the failures of Vietnam. These failures continue. As it stands, since World War II, the United States, possessed of the most powerful military in the history of the world has been unable to effectively satisfy a single military goal. Oh, we’ve toppled nations and governments and brought entire regions of the earth to heal. We have expanded our bases all over the globe and divided the Earth into military districts. Yet, the United States has yet to affect as a single democratic outcome at home or abroad.
Militarism is a failed concept in the contemporary world. It is, however, a very profitable paradigm. This Independence Day, as we celebrate the birth of our nation, let’s look beyond the militaristic bromides that have become the standard fare for such occasions. America is a great country because of its historically active citizenry, not because of its active military. Let’s liberate ourselves from the lies and declare independence from blind militarism.