Patriotism and the Military

Williamsburg, VA lies on a narrow peninsula with the James River on one side the York on the other, both ending at the Atlantic. It retains the height of colonial British American charm. The park like William and Mary campus anchors one end of the community and Historic Colonial Williamsburg the other. Historic houses, the Royal Governors palace, and original state house are represented by docents in colonial costume.  Bucolic parkways connect to Jamestown, the first British colony in North America, and Yorktown, site of the final battle of the Revolutionary War.  Behind the landscaped tranquility of the region are dozens of active military installations representing every branch of the armed forces, all there but hidden from easy view.  Artillery fire can be heard loud and clear once or twice a week. Being a small region with nothing very far way, the gunfire is a reminder that armed conflict raged up and down the peninsula from 1607 through the end of the Civil War. The region endured the cruel era of Jim Crow and segregation until the late 1960s.  It brings to mind the fact that armed conflict and military action has no inherent moral value.  It can be used for any purpose to achieve any end.  Moral justification, if there is one, depends entirely on the ideas and ideals that underlie the conflict.
Our daughter was walking her dog in Colonial Williamsburg a few days before July 4th when she was surprised by the sound of regular artillery fire.  It wasn’t the sound of a colonial canon used in historic demonstrations.  Wondering to herself out loud, a passerby said it was the sound of freedom.  That comment fits in with national pride that too easily equates American freedom with military victory.  It is said we owe our freedom to veterans, those who died in the service of the country, and to active soldiers, sailors and airmen.  To remain free we must maintain a vigilant, well equipped military readiness.
For decade upon decade, we have fought wars against foreign enemies and domestic rebellions to defend our republican democracy and its treasured freedoms. Men and women have gone into harm’s way knowing they might be wounded or even killed.  It required disciplined courage that comes only when the moral reasons for doing one’s duty are worth it.  They are owed a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid fully.  Those who serve now and are prepared to go as they are called are also due our full support in every way. 
There have been wars where American armed forces came to the aid of other free nations under attack by forces intent on destroying them and creating a potential threat to us.  It feels appropriately patriotic to believe the United States goes into armed conflict only with the moral wind at its back.  Those are the wars, after all, that are woven into the national memory, celebrated with holidays, parades, and movies.  Sadly, as some recent conflicts attest, we haven’t always gone to war to deter a threat to us, but exploring that is for another time.
Patriotism, it seems to me, has to be grounded in commitment to the  ideals that are the foundation of our American form of government, and to the difficult progress made toward realizing a fuller measure of freedom through laws, practices and the national ethos. The military was not part of of the foundation laid by the writers of the Constitution. It is rather a tool to defend against military threats from elsewhere. It can be a tool to support and defend nations whose own security is related to ours, and possibly for other purposes to which we have made international commitments in support of freedom and democracy.  The military is a necessary bulwark, but it cannot defend against the most pernicious of internal threats from organized movements operating against democracy, freedom, and justice. We experienced the penultimate version of it in the Civil War.  While the Union was victorious at terrible cost, the war did not stop internal movements from continuing their work, even to this very day. The plotters are aided by foreign enemies who recognize that undermining our democracy from within is easier and safer than confronting it militarily. 
We owe much to the military but it is not the source of freedom.  In the wrong hands it can easily become freedom’s enemy.  In the midst of internal treachery, the psalmist declared a truth that has too often been ignored:   “Day and night they go around its walls, and iniquity and trouble are within it. Ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace. (Ps. 55.10)

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