Thursday, May 6, 2010

Defending the Indefensible

I knew there was something else I meant to write about here, but it kept slipping my mind.

I've always liked Doonesbury, though since I don't regularly read newspapers there have been prolonged periods when I didn't follow the strip closely. For a few years in the 1980s I would just buy each collection as it was published. Now that it's available online, I've done a little better. It was fun to watch certain right-wingers fume when he started up some plots about the Iraq War, with very sympathetic and intelligent portrayals of the troops. When longtime character B.D. lost a leg and his football helmet, a lot of people took notice, but Trudeau has also given serious story time to Leo aka Toggle, an Iraq vet who returns to college after his medical discharge, where he becomes romantically involved with Mike Doonesbury's daughter Alex. Leo lost an eye and has trouble speaking due to Traumatic Brain Injury; he's also a heavy-metal fan who drives a pickup truck. Not exactly the kind of character the Right (or many liberals, alas) would expect to get sensitive kind of treatment in Doonesbury. Which only goes to show how little they know. Sure, Trudeau is a liberal, but he's the kind of liberal that gives liberals a good name.

In last Sunday's strip, Alex and Leo go out for coffee. Alex makes some slighting remarks about some men carrying guns, "open-carry yahoos" as she calls them. (Do such men regularly kick back at Starbucks?) Leo intervenes in the argument: "Listen, dude," he tells one of the men, "I spent two years behind an M60 machine gun defending, among other things, your right to be a moron about guns!" Alex exclaims in delight over Leo's unexpectedly getting out a full sentence.

It's a cute little story, but one thing jumped out at me. Leo was not defending freedom in Iraq. No Iraqi was a threat to Americans' right to be morons about guns. No Iraqi was a threat to American rights or freedoms. It was, and is, our government that is the biggest threat to American rights or freedoms -- remember the Patriot Act, which was passed under Bush but was originally a Clinton-era project? -- and it was in the service of that government that Leo and thousands of other soldiers went to Iraq.

I know, I know, what he said was in character. For that matter, the latest Doonesbury collection, Signature Wound, has a Foreword by retired US Marine Corps General and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace, who hails "all who have stepped forward and volunteered to protect the freedoms we hold dear." Such talk is a conditioned reflex, not only in the military but among most people who can't quite bring themselves to object to any war the US starts. I must respectfully but firmly differ with the General, and with Leo, and with Garry Trudeau if it comes to that. The United States has not fought a defensive war in my lifetime, and I was born in 1951. With all proper sympathy and empathy for those who feel the need to rationalize and justify their participation in the wars of aggression we have fought and are fighting now, I can't go along with them on this point. As far as I can see, until Americans can recognize what their government and their armed forces are doing, we will continue to get involved in these wars, and that will mean more young people getting chewed up and spat out by the military, with more or less support from their society. (Not to mention the vastly greater numbers of innocent foreigners who suffer.) But the best way -- the only way, really -- to support them is not to damage them in the first place.

P.S. May 9, 2010: Oh, dear, here's another one. (Via)

I am a homosexual American citizen and while I fight to defend the rights of free speech and a democratic legislature process, I suffer because these very same freedoms are denied to me as a gay Sailor.
Again, this is mere rhetoric (read the whole letter for his account of the highlights of his service). Which, as I've said before, doesn't mean the ban on gays in the military shouldn't be lifted, only that it has nothing to do with defending anyone's rights.

P.P.S. May 16, 2010: This one from the Give a Damn Campaign's website, an open letter to President Obama from a gay soldier on leave from deployment in Iraq:

When serving in a war zone, you learn quite a bit about yourself and what’s important to you. I’ve had the chance to work on a close and personal level with the people of Iraq, and in doing so, I have realized more than ever that the freedoms we enjoy as Americans should not be taken for granted – we must protect them at all costs. These freedoms are essential to the very foundation of our society. Yet so many men and women who fight for these freedoms aren’t allotted their own. Our freedom to love and be loved by whomever we choose. The freedom to live of a life of truth and dignity.
I wonder if it's possible to talk about an issue like this without relying on such pious garbage. But this young man isn't protecting my freedoms, or your freedoms, or anyone else's freedoms. If anything, he's fighting for a state that is dedicated to taking freedom away. (In an exchange on the Campaign's Facebook pages, one guy inadvertently came closer to reality: "I'm gay, and I would love to serve my military..." (But then I noticed that "Serving the Military" is the thread topic; I can't even give this poor kid credit for the Freudian slip.)