Monday, July 28, 2008

A Big Bucket of Treason and Troop-Hatin'

If it turns out the military really is the sole protector of my liberties, I'm going to have to make some other arrangement after they read this.

A cousin of mine was kind enough to forward a now-viral email--enhanced with some supporting commentary of my cousin's own--exposing Barack Obama as a hypocrite and fraud. It seems I have been greatly mislead by TV footage of the candidate in the middle east greeting ecstatic throngs of US service people. The truth is that Obama has been rude and distant, snubbing the troops in his haste to butter up the generals and the media. Everywhere, he has left shocked and insulted soldiers in his wake--it's clearly documented here.

I watched the news footage again on You Tube. The ingeniously doctored images of a beaming Obama against a backdrop of cheering service people look unassailably authentic. Is there no limit to what they can do with special effects these days?

I did not respond to the email. I imagined the dressing down I would receive from the team of case workers that I can only assume attend my cousin. What could possibly have possessed me to engage and provoke someone so obviously delusional? Do I tease children with cancer about their hair?

Gaping is the gulf between the words we write and the message we send. The words in the missive my cousin sent were lengthy and detailed, and for the most part grammatical and correctly spelled--not to be taken for granted in works of this genre. Yet the message received was many orders of magnitude more succinct:

"Hello. How are you? I am completely bananas."

It seems disrespectful not to accord each individual pearl of preposterousness in this email its opportunity to shine en solo. But let us concede to the demands of brevity, and give special honors to the fervently hymned assertion that the United States military is the supreme granter and guarantor of our freedom.

First off, cousin, the Founding Fathers--whose hagiography should always be invoked when their perspective conveniently reinforces the particular point we want to make--viewed standing armies as the pernicious enabler of a tyrant's will.

So as a young cub of a country, we had no army to speak of. This proved a terrible approach to winning wars. We owe our independence less to the disheveled Continental Army and its talent for retreat than to British exasperation and the serendipitous arrival of the French fleet. Our strategy in the war of 1812 was equally as clever. We simply waited for the Redcoats in the sacked wreckage of Washington to get sick of the mosquitoes and go home. Yet somehow, despite our martial floundering, liberty flourished: John Adams remained free to wander the moors of Braintree, MA and irritate all he encountered. People voted. Unless they were women. Or black. Or renters. And marginally human pioneers on our remote frontiers bred with their siblings and engaged in unspeakable acts with livestock, with never a worry about animal rights activists.

Isn't freedom rich and wondrous?

Have we become more free as our military has expanded? It depends what kind of freedom you mean.

I suspect when you talk about freedom, you are primarily referring to the freedom from subjugation. You have hazy, apocalyptic visions of being herded around in shackles and rags and compelled to move rocks from one side of the road to the other for no discernible purpose. You probably even picture your tormentors as the French, whom we have just learned are the same nice folks who saved your sorry ass in the Revolution.

You ingrate.

But if you will sharpen the focus of your mind's eye for a moment, you will see that the figures wielding the whips in your vision are not La Gaulois, but rather actors in gorilla suits. Because your nightmares of conquest are no product of some savant-like intuition for history's trajectory, but a vague recollection of that time you saw Planet of the Apes. And your fear of defeat at foreign hands is about as realistic as the monkeys.

For though many across the world owe their freedom to the prowess of our military--a thought that for you elicits only chauvinistic indifference where pride should swell--none have displayed any inclination to cross the oceans and subdue the people of Oshkosh or Coral Gables. The only defenses against foreign invasion we seem to require are our unwieldy geography and the world's terror that, if provoked, we will strike back by withholding our delicious snack foods and game shows.

But maybe the freedom you believe flows from a benevolent military is more abstract--the freedom of expression. As someone who spends most every waking moment trying to think of shocking and inappropriate things to say, this is a freedom I treasure. But dear cousin, if I am free to cheerfully belittle our nation's abysmal culinary predilections, to howl over our penchant for glorifying ignorance, and to suggest that our unbecoming narcissism is the hallmark of losers, it's not because the army is here to protect that right. Quite the opposite. It is because the army is expressly forbidden to deploy domestically absent the provocation of foreign invasion, and so can do nothing to stop me from making an ass of myself. It's an arcane legal remnant of a simpler time, and one which--take heart, cousin--I'm sure the President means to remedy before he leaves office. But until then the army can't shoot people in the nifty fifty. Which is why they're always so psyched when they get to travel abroad.

There is one kind of domestic freedom that the military is protecting these days, but I think you will regard this genuine concession on my part as only a veiled barb. OK--it's a veiled barb. The freedom the military is protecting is our freedom to be wealthier than other people. How do they do it? Most notably by hanging out innocuously in the middle east and saying things like, "Oh--is this an oilfield? We didn't notice." But don't be smug, because the balance sheet of our martial proclivities won't tolerate scrutiny. For whatever benefits it provides--yes, $4/gallon is cheap!--the military industrial complex absorbs countless billions of dollars that might otherwise be used for public education or health care, so rendering us less free to go to college or to get that lump checked out.

You probably think I'm a Utopian dreamer. But I'm not advocating for disbanding the army. I know well that foreign nations periodically behave as badly as the foreigners with which they are infested, and I believe our diplomatic tool kit should include a big, up-armored, military-style pipe wrench we can use to bludgeon the recalcitrant into unconsciousness when necessary. Nor am I a troop-hater. I'm confident the vast majority serve out of a sense of responsibility, selflessness, and desire to make a positive contribution. I can only hope that I too may one day rise to display an equal generosity of spirit. Dammit, so I shall if the anti-depressants ever kick in.

And I know my tactlessness tempers my power to persuade. "The more sacred the cow, the better the barbecue," I always say, and as a result am no longer invited to Indian weddings. But I am keenly sensible of your attachments in this matter. I know that your close family has a history of military service, and I know your children are serving now. It is only natural that any attack on the institution of which they are a part should arouse your defensive maternal instincts. I expected no less. I assure you the oil people, the arms people, and the ocean of hangers-on that stand to gain from our wars expected no less as well. The ferocity with which you cling to your faith in the benevolence of the military is most convenient for them. Perhaps, once our current crop of wars have been edged out of the market by a fresh round of conflicts, and your children have come home again--not in a box, god willing--these real victors will share some of their windfall with you. Out of the goodness of their hearts, of course.

My point is that you should protect your babies, not the bathwater. The nobility of your children's service cannot be more or less pure than their intent in offering it, no matter to what ends it is manipulated. Nor will you diminish it if you set aside your preconceptions and the superficial patriotic palliatives you fondly recite and instead think critically about the cause and effects of America's flourishing belligerence. That would not be a betrayal, but rather the exercising of a mother's due diligence.

I take it that you, like the author of the scurrilous fabrication you abetted, "usually don't think much about politics."

Maybe it's time you started.