Miller's Imperial Fallacy
Veteran's Day I receive this poem, often attributed to Father Denis
Edward O'Brien, USMC, in at least one e-mail:
is the soldier, not the reporter, Who has given us freedom of the
is the soldier, not the poet, Who has given us freedom of speech.
is the soldier, not the campus organizer, Who has given us the freedom
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.
year I am stunned by the wrongheadedness of the ideas expressed in this
poem. Usually, I don't think about it again until the next Veteran's
Day. But this year, in his speech at the Republican National Convention,
Georgia Senator Zell Miller said
it has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter,
who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not
the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to
is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose
coffin is draped by the flag, who gives that protester the freedom
to abuse and burn that flag.
that these ideas have been endorsed by a major speaker at a major political
convention, I think it's time that we look more closely at them, because
they are absolutely contradictory to the principles of any democracy.
They also evidence a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of human
rights and of the relationship of the military to a civilian government.
fact, rights are not granted by anyone. They inhere in every human being,
regardless of time or place. This is a basic underlying belief of any
democratic political system. Governments and militaries may recognize
these rights, or they may suppress them or deny their existence. But
they cannot create, destroy, give, or grant a right. We often say that
we must "fight for our rights," but what we really do is fight
for the recognition of our rights. We form democratic systems of government
in order to ensure that our rights are recognized, but a person living
in the most brutal dictatorship imaginable has precisely the same rights
as a person living in Canada, Norway, or the United States.
truly democratic system must proceed from this premise. For if a right
is "granted," it can be simply taken away. It is the recognition
that rights are inherent that leads people to fight for democracy, and
the same recognition that makes a democratic government legitimate.
If we acquiesce to the notion that rights are not inherent, brutality
follows instantly. Any violation of this principle is necessarily arbitrary
and is committed in order to advance a cruel agenda. If rights are not
inherent, why not have an Abu Ghraib? If rights are not inherent, why
not blow up civilians? Kill dissidents? What difference would it make?
It is the fragile recognition of the inherent rights, and the inherent
value, of every single human being that prevents atrocities from becoming
basic premise of this Veteran's Day poem, that soldiers give us rights,
is utter nonsense. But even the specific examples offered are counterfactual.
Most glaringly, the soldier does not "allow" a protester to
burn the flag. The soldier, if he or she is an agent of a democratic
government, acknowledges the universally shared inherent right to freedom
of expression, and follows the law that permits such expression. The
soldier does not allow or have the authority to allow anything. The
soldier works for the government, and the government works for the people
- and is of the people, with the same rights. In an undemocratic system,
the soldier has precisely as much legitimacy as the government he or
she serves - that is, none. In the absence of democratic, civilian control
the soldier is often a thug.
protects the freedom of the press, the freedom of speech, the freedom
to demonstrate? Is it the soldier? It might be, or it might not. Soldiers
are expected to follow orders. Those orders might be in the interest
of protecting rights or in the interest of attacking those who exercise
their rights. Were soldiers who fought for the Allies in World War II
protecting rights? Yes, they were. Were the soldiers who fought in the
Vietnam War, or who "fought" at Kent State, protecting rights?
No, they were not. They were doing the exact opposite. They were following
the orders of a government determined to suppress self-determination
and the right to demonstrate. In doing so, they were themselves demeaned
along with their victims and the principles of democracy.
also true that people who are not soldiers make great sacrifices in
the defense of rights. In the presence of a government that refuses
to recognize individual rights, those who exercise the freedom of the
press, of speech, or to demonstrate take great risks. In defying those
who wish to suppress their rights, they fight for those rights and force
progress toward their recognition. Who did more to fight for the freedom
to demonstrate, protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention, or those
soldiers at Kent State? In which role did Tom Paine do more to defend
the right of freedom of expression, as writer or as soldier? Who did
more to protect democracy, Woodward and Bernstein or Oliver North?
isn't just a stupid little poem or a stupid right-wing speech. These
are dangerous ideas, antithetical to the functioning of a democracy,
that have been spread uncritically throughout our society at a time
when the people running the government love power more than freedom.
It's very important that we recognize and object to these kinds of undemocratic
ideas wherever they appear.