At last year’s Republican National Convention, Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, to huge applause, said:
“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. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest. It 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.”
No skepticism greeted this assertion, and you can consistently hear journalists and politicians mouthing the same sentiment. So it is important to show that Sen. Miller was clearly wrong.
It is true that the military has ensured the birth and survival of the United States as a sovereign nation. America, at least as we know it, would never have come to be without the Continental Army, nor would America have survived intact without the Union Army’s ordeal during the Civil War.
In context, though, Sen. Miller was referring to the military’s actions throughout American history. But not all those actions have been required to secure our nation’s continued existence. The United States would still exist, albeit within smaller boundaries, had we never fought the Mexican- and Spanish-American Wars. Nor were the War of 1812, World War I or the Vietnam War fought for reasons of plausible self-preservation. Perhaps other wars were not waged for self-preservation; but here I am trying to be as historically uncontroversial as possible.
It follows that these wars did not grant or preserve our civil liberties — except, I suppose, if you believe that they somehow indirectly strengthened domestic freedoms. But these wars, if anything, harmed liberty at home.
Return, now, to the wars of self-preservation. Didn’t they, at least, give us the freedoms to which Sen. Miller refers?
Yes, but only in the sense that those wars kept the United States in existence as a political unit. Whether that political unit, once saved, would grant or preserve particular freedoms was an entirely different matter. While the soldier sometimes fights for our nation’s existence, the content and meaning of that existence — in a word, America’s identity — depends on others. To say that the military has “given us” our liberties is a play on words: it evokes the expansive meaning of gift, but means it in a merely partial sense.
Here is one example. Sen. Miller adverted to the freedom to burn the American flag as an act of political protest. This right was first recognized in 1989, in the Supreme Court case of Texas v. Johnson. Before 1989, a federal law and the laws of 48 of the 50 states had criminalized flag burning. It is simply inaccurate to say that our military secured the right for a protester to burn the flag. As a matter of common sense and historical fact, the people who secured the freedom to burn the flag were, among others, Justice William Brennan, who managed to pull together five votes to reverse a conviction under Texas’s flag-desecration law; William Kunstler, who argued the case before the Court; and the ACLU, who wrote a legal brief in the case.
I am not saying that courts are the sole means of protecting our liberty. I’m saying, rather, that it is hyperbole to claim that our veterans, as much as I honor them, have “given us” the liberties we enjoy — the product, mainly, of politicians, courts and conscientious private citizens.
Why was Sen. Miller’s assertion credited and applauded when it is plainly wrong? That is a question more appropriate for a long discussion, but a short and tentative answer may be ventured. When a war was waged on false premises but continues to be defended on utopian grounds; when those who see that war as purposeless violence, and therefore hate it, are viewed as untrustworthy; and when influential commentators value “toughness” above a humane prudence; it is unsurprising that some should attribute even the content of our civil liberties to the military, and so corrupt their understandings to serve power.
Benjamin Gould is a second-year student at the Law School.