Martial Vices

Zell Miller's un-American view of the armed forces.


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.

"A liberal democracy faces a dilemma when it comes to having a military, for that military cannot govern itself by the liberal principles it ultimately defends," Naval War College professor Thomas Mackubin Owens–a Vietnam veteran and a harsh Kerry critic–wrote in The Weekly Standard in 1997.

He reiterated this paradox in a 2003 article for National Review: "In order to ensure its security, society delegates the use of force to a subgroup within society. How does society ensure that this subgroup does what it is supposed to do, without turning on society itself? If the military is weakened in order to ensure that it will not turn on society, it may face defeat on the battlefield. If the military is given everything it needs to ensure that it will prevail on the battlefield, it may be in a position to launch a coup."

While Owens has voiced concern about civilian attempts to soften the military, his article in National Review strongly reaffirms the importance of civilian control. This is the same National Review whose staffers rushed to praise Miller's convention speech on the magazine's blog.

Yet Miller's speech comes perilously close to a rejection of civilian control as an ideal–not only by glorifying the warrior at the expense of civilian defenders of freedom, but by reconceptualizing the American presidency as a military post.

There is, of course, a lot of truth to Miller's charge that many on the left have a knee-jerk tendency to view American military power as the source of all evil in the world. Three decades ago, critics of the war in Vietnam were all too willing to believe the worst about U.S. soldiers, including fictional or exaggerated tales of atrocities along with the ones that actually happened; novelist Mary McCarthy said she preferred to think it was the Americans, not the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, who slaughtered at least 2,500 civilians found in mass graves in the city of Hue.

Today, some in the antiwar camp have the same attitude: The deaths of Iraqi civilians at the hands of American forces are lamented and denounced, while the Iraqi insurgents who kill their own get a free pass.

Despite plenty of blundering and outright wrongdoing, I believe that, on the whole, American military power in the last century has been a force for good. But to acknowledge that hardly translates into the dogma that no patriotic American politician can, under any circumstances, refer to U.S. military action abroad as an "occupation" rather than a "liberation."

Those who take on the burden of killing and the risk of dying in our defense deserve gratitude. But unthinking support for "our troops" is a feature of profoundly illiberal societies. In the Soviet Union at the dawn of glasnost, dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov were blasted for "denigrating the honor of the Soviet army" by criticizing the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

It is even more illiberal to view a wartime president as a military commander whose authority must not be undermined by criticism. This is a particularly dangerous proposition in a war on terror that has no end in sight. Here again it is useful to recall the words of James Madison: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."?