Some Reflections on Veterans’ Day

Why is Veterans’ Day so important to Americans?  Some think the answer is because we have an inherently militaristic society, ready to celebrate war at the drop at a hat.  Or because the military-industrial complex benefits from the political fires that can be stoked by the emotional appeal of the day.

But none of that is true.  In fact, it is the exact opposite which is true. In America, we do not have a “military class,” as many societies, present and past, have had.  Our military is drawn from American communities, some average, some extraordinary, which to one extent or another represent American values.  We don’t have a militaristic society in America, we have an American society in America’s military.

We do not sequester our future soldiers at infancy, to be raised as warriors.  Rather, our warriors were raised as Americans, then called to a duty to protect American values.  So our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen, grew up as the kid down the street, the girl in glee club, the guy who was a whiz at math, the kid who couldn’t stand school, and the kid who loved it.  They are the sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, of ordinary people. That is why we find veterans of all ethnic groups, religions, and political opinions in our society today.

While it’s not correct to say that America is a militaristic society, it is correct to say that America is a “militia” society.  What does that mean?  It means that we are a society that frankly abhors a narrow monopoly of a military.  This is evident in American history and law. Historically, our colonies did not have large standing armies.  Defense was an obligation shared by all.  And as the colonies federated into the United States of America, nearly every state had or has a statute defining the militia, usually words to this effect:

The militia of the State consists of all able-bodied male
citizens and all other able-bodied males who have declared their
intention to become citizens of the United States, who are between
the ages of eighteen and forty-five, and who are residents of the
State, and of such other persons as may upon their own application be
enlisted or commissioned [this clause includes women].

Calif. Military &  Veterans Code, section 122.

Federal law  is virtually identical:

The militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and, except as provided in section 313 of title 32, under 45 years of age who are, or who have made a declaration of intention to become, citizens of the United States and of female citizens of the United States who are members of the National Guard.

Title 10, United States Code, section 311(a).

State Governors and the President of the United States may call their respective militias as specified in law.  This is the manifestation of defense as civic community duty in a democratic society.  So if we have a special military caste in America, we’re all in it.

Even in America’s major wars, the notion of citizen as solider has held fast.  That this notion has often been effectuated by “conscription” is of no moment at all.  The draft is merely a method by which the state decides which members of militia will be assigned duties and in which order.

“But,” one may protest, “the militia society concept is at sharp odds with the large standing military establishment the United States maintained in the Cold War.”  I say, “Not so.”

In the first three decades of the Cold War, the defense establishment of the nation was sustained by the selection of members of the militia to serve short tours of active duty.  Some of these members were chosen by “conscription” and some were volunteers.  In  1973, the United States stopped its active draft and created an “all volunteer force.”  Many predicted at the time that this was a move which endangered democracy by enhancing the potential to segregate the military from mainstream American values.  At the time, I was one who held this view. (Full disclosure: I joined the soon-to-be “all volunteer force” in 1972 and was an active participant for the next thirty-four years in one form or an other.)  Now having observed the “all volunteer force” for four decades, I am convinced that the military is not estranged from American society, that we have not created an elite warrior class to lord it over the rest of us and the rest of the world.  We continue have a a force made up ordinary people called upon, from a variety of motives, to participated in the “organized” militia or the “active” militia which makes up our defense.  [I use these terms to include the standing active duty forces as well as the reserve components, the latter having been the original historical militia].

The point is that military veterans are at their core, a reflection of the families and communities from whence they come.  The celebration of veterans is a celebration of the best of what we are collectively.  The greatest threats to our liberty will come from a failure to recognize and embrace the manifestation and triumph of our shared values, values so transcendent, that millions of our fellows have been willing to risk their very lives in their defense.

And that’s why Veterans Day is a big deal to Americans.


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November 2010
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