Sunday, November 11, 2012

Defending Freedom

It's Veterans' Day, so there's lots of discourse going on about veterans.  Much of it is thoroughly empty, the usual boilerplate about those who served and "defend our freedoms."

Where our freedoms are concerned, I'd rather thank the heroes and veterans of the labor movement, the women's movement, the Civil Rights movement, the gay movement, and all others who worked so hard (and too often died) for freedom for themselves and others.  That includes people who went to court for freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly, securing rights that we had in theory but not in practice.  If anything, in wartime our freedoms are most in danger from our own government.

I've argued before that the US has not fought a war of defense in my lifetime, and I was born in 1951.  And even World War II, in which the US was actually attacked and the subject of a formal declaration of war, hardly did much for freedom.  A good many African-Americans in those days asked with good reason whose freedoms they were fighting for, when the country was officially and legally racist?  Activists had to threaten President Roosevelt with a march on Washington to pressure him to desegregate war industries and the US government itself, and the military remained segregated until Truman's executive order (also pressured by activists) in 1948.  Add to this the Red Scare crackdown on civil liberties that followed both World Wars in the US and its dominions, and the connection between our armed forces and our freedoms becomes ever more dubious.

I don't mean to show disrespect for military veterans, especially those who worked with antiwar movements, and those who've worked to clear mines and cluster bombs in other countries (in Vietnam, for example) when the government couldn't be bothered and even put roadblocks in their way.  And I'm outraged by our government's frequent neglect and mistreatment of veterans (look up the Bonus Army if you don't know about it, but there are so many other cases).  If our country is going to put people in mortal danger and let them be hurt or killed in its service, it owes them -- all the more so when the wars shouldn't have been fought to begin with.

But I think we also owe a debt of honor at least to non-soldiers who worked at home for freedom, without firing a shot, and that debt is even farther in arrears than our debt of care to our veterans.  The closest we have to a holiday in honor of ordinary citizens who worked for freedom is Martin Luther King's birthday, and it's significant that there was so much opposition to it.  But as important as the Civil Rights movement was and is, there have been other movements no less important.  It's not a holiday I'm calling for, though.  I want general recognition of the role such movements, and the people who composed them, have played in our history.