Martial Vices: Zell Miller's Un-American View of the Armed Forces

By Young, Cathy | Reason, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Martial Vices: Zell Miller's Un-American View of the Armed Forces


Young, Cathy, Reason


THE FIERY KEYNOTE speech by Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) was one of the defining moments of the 2004 Republican National Convention. Besides being the week's most vehement attack on John Kerry, it was a ringing affirmation of military virtues. Reactions to the speech were sharply divided, generally along predictable partisan lines: Where most liberals saw frightening anger and vitriol, most conservatives saw inspiring passion and righteous outrage.

Afterward, there was some pointed criticism of the ways Miller distorted Kerry's Senate record but relatively little attention to the philosophy underlying his tirade. A few observers, such as reason's own Matt Welch and Slate's William Saletan, did pick up on the authoritarian implications of Miller's swipe at the Democrats' "manic obsession with bringing down our commander in chief," which seemed to equate the normal democratic process of challenging a president in an election with something akin to wartime treason. Yet Miller's speech contained another remarkable bit of political philosophy.

"For it has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press," Miller said. "It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest." (This quotation, with "campus organizer" in place of "agitator" is attributed to Sgt. Denis Edward O'Brien, a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Marine Corps.) Miller added, "No one should dare to even think about being the commander in chief of this country if he doesn't believe with all his heart that our soldiers are liberators abroad and defenders of freedom at home."

Far be it from me to begrudge the soldiers who have fought and died in defense of freedom a tribute. Yet this stark either-or formula is absurdly extreme. With reporters and political activists but without soldiers, we would be at risk of losing our freedom to foreign aggressors; with soldiers but without reporters and political activists, we would be at risk of losing it to a domestic military dictatorship.

What's more, Miller's denigration of the role of journalists, "agitators" and other noncombatants in the preservation of liberty could be legitimately called un-American--at least if you look to the Founding Fathers as the standard. "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press," Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Jay in 1786. In another letter, he went further, declaring that between "a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter "James Madison voiced similar sentiments, crediting the press with "all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression."

The Founders' attitude toward warfare and the military--at least, toward a professional soldier class, as opposed to an armed citizen militia--was far less enthusiastic. "A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty," James Madison told the Constitutional Convention in 1787. A few years later he wrote, "Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other."

Not everything Jefferson and Madison believed is necessarily applicable in today's world, which is much more interdependent and much more vulnerable to global threats. Yet even if circumstances compel us to become far more entangled in military conflicts abroad than the Founders would have countenanced, surely it is all the more important to heed their warnings about the perils of the militarization of society and state, it has been noted in far more recent times, by commentators who are neither leftists nor libertarians, that there is an almost inherent tension between a democratic polity and the armed forces. …

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