L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 345, November 13, 2005
"Plant the Spirit of the Rifleman"
The Devaluation of Freedom
Special to TLE
I love Washington, DC. Oh, I absolutely don't love what goes on there, but the history and the symbolism are wonderful. I've visited Washington a number of times now, the most recent being just a week ago. There are some things I see over and over again (the Charters of Freedomthe collective name given by the National Archives to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rightsfor example, and the Space Shuttle Enterprise), but every time I go, I see new things as well. This trip was no exception.
One thing that was different this trip was the fact that I had a friend of mine along. She and I tend to agree on many political issues and are, in fact, both fairly active in politics. I figured we'd find much to talk about and to inspire us in Washington. I was right, but what we talked about took me by surprise.
One of our excursions took us to Arlington National Cemetery. I am well aware and deeply appreciative of the many sacrifices remembered there. I've been to Arlington before, but there were a few new things there for me to look at. One of those was the memorial to the Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts. The other was a limited time exhibit in the Women in Military Museum entitled "The Wall of the Fallen."
The Wall is made up of small portraits by a variety of artists. Each artist was given access to photographs of soldiers who died in Afghanistan or Iraq up through November of last year. The resulting artwork is now mounted with plates bearing the soldier's name and dates of birth and death. The smiles on some faces are poignant; the pride shining through on so many is humbling. Most moving of all, though, are the coins, notes, flowers, and other tributes left near so many photos.
With tears in my eyes, I read notes from children or parents to their lost fathers or children. As I stood in front of one portrait, a young man, his wife, and their small child walked up beside me. He quietly placed a coin at the base of one painting and stepped back. The child piped up, "Did you know him, Daddy?" The man answered that yes, he'd known that soldier as well as several others pictured on The Wall.
The man's wife said nothing, but she followed closely as her husband laid more coins beside more portraits. As he did, he clearly grieved. But it was just as obvious that he took great pride in himself and in his brothers in arms. I personally left a thank you note with those on The Wall. Although I'm not proud of the reasoning behind the war in Iraq, I remain grateful for those who go such places and who brave such dangers in the name of freedom.
My friend, who'd wandered far ahead of me along The Wall, walked back to where I was standing. She, too, had tears in her eyes. But as it turns out, hers were tears of anger, and she whispered through clenched teeth, "I'd send my sons to Canada before I'd let them join the Army!" I didn't respond; after all, there are good reasons to oppose at least the war in Iraq, and so it's fair to say that there might be good reasons to refuse participation when refusal is an option.
Later the same day, I had the opportunity to visit the Viet Nam War Memorial for the first time. That memorial is merely a V-shaped construct of polished black stone engraved with the names, in order of death, of all of the American soldiers who died southeast Asia. I don't know anyone who fought there; I don't know anyone affected by someone who died there. And yet, standing there, I wept (if you've not seen it, you can't appreciate just what an impact it has even for those of us who have no connection to the war itself).
My friend, again in tears, leaned close to me and said, "We never learn! Why do we have to fight about everything?" Well, there are reasons, and some good ones. But Viet Nam isn't very often used as an example of "good reason to fight," so I made no reply.
After having kept quiet at two memorials fearing I had no solid ground to stand on for debate, I was actually shocked into silence at a third.
The World War II Memorial is rife with symbolism. One of the most moving of those symbols is a low wall covered with gold stars. Each star represents, I'm told, about 100 dead soldiers. There are a lot of stars. On a large, low strip of granite seated in front of the wall of stars is engraved: "Here We Mark the Price of Freedom."
It's not possible to stand in front of the rippling fountains and look at the thousands of gold stars and not feel grateful. I don't believe any American could read the inscriptions featured at the Memorial and remain unmoved. Certainly, my friend seemed as emotional as I was. And then she spoke: "War is stupid. Why can't we ever just compromise?"
Although I recognize our losses were grievous in that particular conflict, I have to wonder just how it is any of those men would look at us today if any of us might suggest that we should have compromised with Adolph Hitler. Might they wonder in return just what happened to the kind of America they died to defend?
The next day, there was a strangely similar exhibit at another venue we visited. It's called "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War," and it's housed in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. It features artifacts and information from every conflict the United States has been involved in, from the Revolutionary War to the ongoing battle in the Middle East. I was especially touched by objects from both ends of the timeline.
A British uniform, in perfect condition, made the war seem bizarrely close and real. Near the end of the exhibit, a strange steel sculpture caught my eye (I'm no fan of modern art, but the Smithsonian displays a good deal of sculpture in that vein, so you'll forgive me initial impressions). Upon moving closer, I learned that the twisted and holed beams were actually taken from the World Trade Center's south tower after 9/11.
In front of the beams are small glass cases containing the mangled fragments of an Airfone from Flight 93 and the Pentagon ID badges of a military man who perished there on that same date. Whatever your view on the extension of the War on Terror into Iraq, make no mistake: the beams, the phone, and the badges are, indeed, artifacts of war and symbolic of heroes, dead and alive, in the conflict.
My friend didn't say anything. Why not? She chose not to see that particular exhibit. She was not, she said, interested in seeing anything to do with war. I went without her, to pay my respects if nothing else. And as I began my tour with that British uniform, and while I looked at antique firearms and touched cannon barrels, I came to realize something of great importance to us all: the American Revolution, or more properly, the War for Independence, wouldn't be fought today.
Although there will always be a few patriotic volunteers who will fight, there are more and more people who express themselves as my friend did, and who won't goor allow their children to gointo harm's way, no matter the cause. There are more and more people who believe in working toward some kind of utopia where wars are simply not necessary, forgetting that human nature alone will preclude that goal. The same people who don't believe that deadly force is ever necessary in self defense are becoming more and more vocal in their beliefs that the deadly force known as war isn't necessary either, if only we try to understand the "enemy" or if we'd just stop whatever it is we're doing to make him mad.
The first step toward this end is, of course, compromise (and it doesn't matter that such compromise can and will involve ignoring appalling human rights violations); other integral actions involve such entities as the United Nations (forgetting, of course, that the UN is singularly ineffective in its stated mission even as it is rotting from the inside out with scandal, and that it represents perhaps the gravest threat to our national sovereignty in the world today). Note that none of these steps involve freedom and its inherent risk; none of them involve sacrifice if that sacrifice is deemed too great. And nowhere is it mentioned that, in the end, the final result will prove to be a loss of freedom for all.
With that in the back of my mind, I finally spoke up in a moment of pique and quoted a Klingon proverb (it's not original to Star Trek, but I'm damned if I know the original source) and told my friend that, "I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees." She looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. Melodramatic I may be, but I've lost neither my mind nor my love for real freedom. It's readily apparent, however, that too many people in America today have lost at least the latter, replacing it with a desire for security or a fear of responsibility.
I don't like war. It's dirty, nasty, ugly business. There are times, however, it's a necessity. I like even less the undermining of liberty in the name of war. Winning freedom and preserving freedom are worth the price, whether the cost merely involves activism or is far, far greater. Maybe if we can't believe that, or if we've forgotten just how much it cost those who won our freedom in the first place, we should ask some who aren't free what they'd give to get what we've already gotand what they'd think of those of us who, without complaint and sometimes with complicity, are so readily willing to give it away.