Every July 4, the nation’s official birthday, many Americans conflate the U.S. military and what it does abroad with “patriotism.” This past weekend was no exception. Yet there are many things wrong with this line of reasoning.
Let’s start with July 4. What happened on July 4, 1776? Actually, not all that much. Although most Americans erroneously believe that the Declaration of Independence was signed on that date, it was signed gradually over a period throughout that summer. The weather was very hot in Philadelphia that July 4, the windows of what is now Independence Hall had to be kept open, and huge horseflies afflicting the horses parked outside kept annoying members of the Continental Congress. Therefore, debate on the declaration was cut short, a vote was quickly taken, and the document was posted. At the time, the vote on the Declaration was regarded as insignificant, because the key vote to separate from Britain had occurred on July 2. Most of the founders believed that July 2 would become Independence Day.
Thomas Jefferson was given the task of writing the Declaration, in part, because of his junior status. The Declaration’s importance was elevated only over time, especially because its author eventually founded what is now the Democratic Party, which dominated the American political scene from 1800 to 1840. Of course, none of this diminishes the snappy language of the Declaration’s second paragraph, which neatly argues that governments should be founded to protect people’s rights instead of violate them. A skeptic night call these sentiments naïve, but the document has helped inspire future generations in other countries to throw off the chains of tyrannical rule.
Which brings us to the question of how the permanent overseas militarism that America has acquired and exhibited, especially since World War II, relates to the founding principles of our republic. It doesn’t. Of course, Americans slaughtered Native Americans and stole land in North America from the Spanish and Mexicans, but for the most part, permanent U.S. military meddling abroad was avoided until after World War II.
Americans glorify their military now, but this would have been frowned on by an anti-militaristic founding generation that was suspicious of standing armies and alliances with foreign nations. For example, George Washington warned the country to stay out of “permanent alliances,” and Thomas Jefferson talked of the dangers of “entangling alliances.” In fact, one of the reasons that the framers of the Constitution gave most of the war powers to Congress (they have since migrated extra-constitutionally to the executive branch) was a reaction to European monarchs leading their countries into wars of self-aggrandizement, with the costs in blood and treasure falling on the common citizen. Thus, the United States was founded on principles of anti-militarism.
This seems strange nowadays, but if you examine the writings of early foreign observers of America — including the famous Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 1800s — they remarked on Americans’ lack militarism and their preoccupation instead with commerce.
America acquired its globe girdling military empire only after World War II, complete with hundreds of military bases, scores of unequal foreign alliances, and scads of questionable military interventions. And all this just when the advent of nuclear weapons added to the nation’s remote location to further enhance its already formidable security — making all of these added measures unnecessary.
But isn’t it at least “patriotic” to support the men and women in our armed forces? No, it is “nationalistic” to do so. The patriots of the American founding generation fought against their government to preserve their freedoms, society, and culture. Nationalists support their government and its employees no matter what they do. However, if we must erroneously insist on the claim that glorifying the military and its members is patriotic, we should call it Russian- or German-style patriotism (of the martial variety) rather than original American-style patriotism (which was anti-militaristic in nature).
Besides, how are we supporting the men and women of the armed forces when we ship them off to die or be permanently maimed in pointless brush-fire wars for vague national objectives? In that case, maybe a little less support for them would be a good thing. Of course, a skeptic might say that we heap praise on today’s voluntary military not only because of the alleged mistreatment of returning Vietnam-era draftees who had been shanghaied by their government to fight in a pointless war, but because we feel guilty that these volunteers are sacrificing heavily in foreign hellholes while we light fireworks, barbecue, and lead comfortable lives in the chairborne brigades stateside.
The solution is not to jeer at military people, but to realize just how militaristic America has become, distinguish “patriotism” from militarism, and decouple the military from militarism. All of this would lead to supporting the troops by bringing them home from all foreign wars and most overseas deployments.