Saturday, October 21, 2017

Respecting the Dead

As I've written before, one of the many threats to healthy political norms at the moment is the risk that those who oppose Donald Trump will throw over those norms in the name of supposedly protecting them--to destroy the public square in order supposedly to save it.  Jack Goldsmith raised a similar point in this extended piece (the latter of which looks at how the anti-Trump "resistance" could itself be sabotaging norms).  A particularly dangerous strategy has been what I sometimes think of as the falsification of norms: the effort to pretend that current norms are very different from what they are in order to say that President Trump is somehow breaking them.  It's all well and good to argue that certain norms should be changed (that's healthy politics); it's quite another to rewrite history.

Masha Gessen has written some interesting material in the past, but her latest piece in the New Yorker--provocatively titled "John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup"--might present a distorted perspective about the role of honoring dead soldiers in American culture.  Gessen argues that Kelly's press conference this week, in which he excoriated the politicization of contacting the families of the military dead, somehow offers the logic of a military coup.

Gessen's analysis seems to suggest that there's something totalitarian about public officials expressing great esteem for fallen soldiers:
But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans—specifically, fallen soldiers.
The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic. It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom.
Celebrating fallen soldiers, though, is not exactly specific to the Soviet Union.  For generations, American school children were (and, in some cases, still are) taught about Nathan Hale precisely because of the great composure he showed while being executed by the British as an American spy during the Revolutionary War.  Hale's famous (and perhaps apocryphal) "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" was treated as showing great courage and great patriotism.

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address uses a reverential tone about the dead of the Civil War (emphasis added):
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain
-- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln specifically spoke of both the living and the dead as "consecrating" the ground of Gettysburg.  He said that "the world" will not remember political rhetoric but will remember that martial struggle.  He claimed that these dead made it even more important for the Union to win the Civil War--in order to ensure that they have not died in vain.

Only a few years ago, Barack Obama argued that we could never repay the military dead for all that they have done for the country:
The patriots we memorialize today sacrificed not only all they had but all they would ever know. They gave of themselves until they had nothing more to give. It’s natural, when we lose someone we care about, to ask why it had to be them. Why my son, why my sister, why my friend, why not me?
These are questions that cannot be answered by us. But on this day we remember that it is on our behalf that they gave our lives -- they gave their lives. We remember that it is their courage, their unselfishness, their devotion to duty that has sustained this country through all its trials and will sustain us through all the trials to come. We remember that the blessings we enjoy as Americans came at a dear cost; that our very presence here today, as free people in a free society, bears testimony to their enduring legacy.
Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice, and we must.
In fact, only last year, President Obama said that "Gold Star families" (the families of the military dead) represent "the very best of our country."  It's true that here President Obama was praising the families of the dead rather than the dead themselves, but he drew attention to those families precisely because they were related to someone who had died.

Gessen and others have suggested there's something troubling about Kelly's high praise for military life, but it's important to note that praising the military does not necessarily mean support for rule by the military.  For instance, Douglas MacArthur's final speech at West Point spoke reverentially about the military, but MacArthur also insisted that the military could not decide many of the vital questions of public life.

If folks want to argue that we shouldn't praise dead soldiers--well, it's a free country (in part because of those dead soldiers).  But celebrating the nobility, integrity, and importance of those who fell in the nation's service has been a mainstream, bipartisan tradition.  Just as every government program is not necessarily a step down the road to serfdom, all celebration of the military dead is not a prelude to totalitarian tyranny.

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