George on Georgia – I fear for the democracy so many have died defendingGeorge Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse
Editor’s note: George Chidi now publishes a Substack newsletter called “The Atlanta Objective.” If you want to support him directly, sign up for a paying subscription to his newsletter by clicking here.
You’re going to see a social media post today that will be some variation on this theme: that America’s fallen warriors obligate you to temper your criticism of the government. The burning of flags or shouting profanity at cops is freedom paid for with the blood of men and women, and that doing so shows a lack of gratitude and respect for that sacrifice. Or so it goes.
I am here to tell you that the people saying this are wrong, that they are using the honored dead for their own political purposes – as dishonorable an act as any I can think of – and to remind you of your actual obligations as Americans.
Because that’s what Memorial Day is – a day to remember. Not just to remember the fallen, but to remember truthfully why these men and women served and gave their lives and what that means for you and I.
Those who have served do so for many reasons. Surveys tell us that it’s not the money, though that’s grown better of late. The call of duty is real; valor and service as a value to uphold personally and to propagate with one’s example. We do not question whether soldiers are contributing something worthy with their lives and deaths; it is accepted as an axiom. Service provides meaning.
Valor and honor have power over us, as well they should if America is to possess either. But it’s easy for that to warp our view of the world and our obligations. We fought much longer than we should have in Vietnam not because of any tangible national interest but because of the intangible interest in protecting the martial honor of the 50,000 men and women who died serving. The definitive assessment of the Iraq War – something that’s managed to fall down the memory hole – concludes that the only beneficiary from its 4,497 American dead and 288,000-plus Iraqi dead is Iran.
In no way is this criticism of the soldier. The martial honor of an individual on the battlefield is something distinct from the things that cause us to go to war. Moral philosophers call this the difference between jus in bello, or the conduct of war, and jus ad bellum, or the justification for war. While American military conduct historically has notable exceptions – the Indian Wars come to mind – the conduct of American soldiers has been notable for preserving its moral core. Our military shows little toleration for misconduct.
For that, we owe the honored dead our best judgment.
I’m not here to tell you what that is today. My sentiment isn’t partisan. In this context, I don’t care how you vote. I care that you vote, and that you be informed honestly, and that you reason. The burden of war is felt by a small and shrinking subset of Americans: of the one percent of Americans who serve today, fully 30 percent are the children of veterans. But the responsibility for sending people to war is yours. Your choices determine who lives or dies. That’s what most of those we honor died believing: that they were defending our democracy.
We don’t have a democracy if you’re not doing your job.
America demands little of us as citizens. Pay your taxes, wherever you might live. Submit to service on a jury when asked. Do not conspire with our enemies. Register for a draft that will almost certainly never come.
I chose the word “demands” carefully; these are the obligations that the government will enforce at the barrel of a gun. You have other obligations that no one will make you meet. You have a duty to participate in your community. You have a duty to be informed. You have a duty to respect the rights, beliefs and opinions of others. You have a duty to defend and support the Constitution.
Those duties aren’t my opinion. They’re what the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service tells immigrants what their responsibilities would be as citizens.
I fear for the democracy so many have died defending. If January 6 taught us nothing, it is that the norms and values that allow us to govern ourselves with the ballot could easily slip away, leaving nothing but the bullet.
– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and a veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.