And, our soldiers don’t just give freedom abroad, they preserve it for us here at home. For it has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. 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. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag, who gives that protester the freedom he abuses to burn that flag.~ Sen. Zell Miller

There were a few actually striking things about Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller’s keynote address at the otherwise dreary Republican National Convention last night. One was its sharp and genuinely bitter tone, something I had not expected from the tired apostles of “compassionate conservatism” with their saccharine, boring slogans about an education “reform” bill most educators and parents despise or a drug entitlement that will explode the federal budget. Regardless of what one might think of Sen. Miller’s bizarre loathing for his own party (a contempt he apparently never could muster during Vietnam or during the ludicrous Dukakis campaign), no one could claim that his speech was not as substantive as anything heard in these meaningless conventions for well over a decade.

Much of what I found so bothersome about the speech was precisely the substance that it contained. From the laughable invocation of Wendell Wilkie’s great patriotism (the senator seemed to think that his meek agreement with a dishonest president was more patriotic than dissenting against his bad policies) to the weird, militarist glorification of “the soldier” cited above to the standard apocalyptic warning that the election will change the course of history, Sen. Miller conveyed as well as any speaker in this campaign what the Bush re-election effort is founded upon: fearmongering, an obsession with the military and hysteria.

Needless to say, soldiers do not “give” freedom. This was the most erroneous and the most offensive statement that the senator made during the speech. Soldiers are engaged in the ugly, but sometimes necessary, business of coercing, destroying and killing. Soldiers no more “give” anyone freedom than they “give” anyone life. It is not their purpose to provide these things. It may be rightly said that soldiers can defend a free society, or that soldiers are instrumental in removing a tyrannical government so that a free society might emerge, but this basic confusion of what soldiers do with what citizens, laws and statesmen do suggests to me a worrying and dangerous idolatry of the military that has gone far beyond the respect and honour due to military service and a vigorous support for national defense. If this is what it means to be a Bush supporter, I would think that even a great many people in the service would find this excessive glorification of the military odd and not really in keeping with the spirit of an older America.

Soldiers did not give the peoples of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe their liberty; their contribution to the liberation of these peoples was entirely negative, in that they did not forcibly oppose the revolutions that took place from 1989-91, which were revolutions sponsored by professionals, workers and ordinary people from all walks of life. Our soldiers did contribute significantly to the defense of free societies in Europe and Asia, but it is essential to remember that they were not directly providing those countries with their domestic freedom: this was a product of their own constitutional governments and societies. It seems to me self-evident that American forces in Iraq are occupying forces; one can say that it is all in a good cause, if one must, but to deny the overriding reality of our military domination of a country against the wishes of the vast majority of the inhabitants is to be a fool. If that conviction about our presence in Iraq puts one so much at odds with Mr. Bush’s position, as he claimed, then I believe Sen. Miller will find that he has driven off a great many of those who may have been wavering in their voting decision until they were lectured and insulted about what the sufficiently patriotic and responsible view is. Iraq is a losing issue for Mr. Bush. Berating Kerry for a position (i.e., referring to troops as occupiers, not liberators) he has not really held in public concerning Iraq smacks of a certain political obliviousness, while it also risks offending those who might hold that opinion quite honestly without any rancour or hostility towards the military.

It should also be unnecessary to remind Americans that their forefathers feared and hated standing armies as the greatest domestic threat to liberty, though most Americans of all stripes tend to forget this now. Nothing is less traditionally American, in this sense, than praising soldiers even for preserving liberty, to say nothing of “giving” it. Perhaps Sen. Miller thought he was doing Mr. Bush a favour by attacking along these lines with such ferocity. However, I suspect that this speech may be remembered as one of the elements that alienated many potential Bush voters. This speech may have reconfirmed all the worst suspicions many people have developed about this administration, namely that it is abrasive, arrogant, impatient with all criticism and entirely obsessed with the situation in Iraq at the expense of Americans.

A Prussian militarist would also have found this association of soldiers and freedom more than a little bizarre, since even at its best “Prussianism” saw little value in exalting freedom and took military discipline as a model for a virtuous and disciplined life. Soldiering and political freedom go very poorly together, even though someone from a free society can become a soldier without abandoning his love of that society. The relative merits of such a view are not the issue–the point is that practically no society prior to modern American society viewed armies as bearers of freedom or soldiers as the “givers” of freedom. The rule or law, whose establishment such armies made possible, might or might not bring some kind of freedom, but it was precisely the state or the law and not the army (however reliant the state may have been upon the army) that brought these benefits. That is really the whole point: it was the form of government and the kind of society that lay behind our armies that made our victories in WWII as beneficial to the conquered peoples as they were. But for those things, we would have simply become new overlords in every respect. Every society has its admirable soldiers, even liberal societies, but the soldiers did not create liberal society and actually develop strong instincts that are, as Kenneth Minogue has argued, fundamentally contrary to liberal society.