Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Universal Soldier and the Twilight of Democracy

Jana Oliver, a fantasy writer, recently attended the Romance Writers of America convention in Reno, and reported that the conventioneers showed their support for our young men and women serving in Iraq while deploring President Bush and his war policies. And while romance and fantasy writers aren’t exactly a scientific sampling of American society, I believe their viewpoint is the prevailing one in America.

That contrasts with the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, in which a substantial minority felt the ordinary soldier was culpable. Perhaps the best summation of that argument can be found in Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song, "Universal Soldier," which concludes:

But without him how would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau,
Without him Caesar would have stood alone.
He’s the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can’t go on.

He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame.
His orders come from far away no more.
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers, can’t you see
This is not the way we put an end to war.

I personally never blamed the ordinary soldier for the Vietnam war. A large number were draftees. Most of those who volunteered believed they were fighting for a good cause. But those who did blame them were reflecting a belief in democracy which is virtually absent from today’s society.

The Students for a Democratic Society called it "participatory democracy," and it is as radical an agenda as anything proposed by Marx, Lenin, or Mao. Many SDS members rejected republican, or representative government, arguing that only pure democracy, with all decisions made by popular vote, was worthy of the name democracy. (Unfortunately, practical application of the idea led to farce, when SDS members in Cleveland would debate for hours on whether to take a dinner break.)

But the ideal of participatory democracy was a powerful one. America was a democracy, or at least a democratic republic. And if "we the people" rule, then we bear responsibility for its failings. In fact, Sainte-Marie went beyond blaming the soldier by saying his orders come "from…you and me." We were all, as members of a democratic society, culpable for the sins of war.

While many of us still believe in the ideals of democracy, few see ours as a democratic society, in which the ordinary citizen has any power to make changes. We all remember the election of 2000, in which Al Gore had won the popular vote, and appeared to have won Florida, giving him an electoral majority. But five members of the Supreme Court stopped the recount and awarded the election to George W. Bush.

In 2004, Democrats nominated one of the most decent people in public life to run for president, but the false and malicious "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" campaign, plus Republican vote suppression and probable voter fraud, gave Bush the victory over John Kerry. After two successive presidential elections which appear to have been won fraudulently, it’s hard to talk about a democratic society.

I’m glad we’re not blaming common soldiers for Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. But we should also remember that one reason we don’t blame them is because we believe that they, like ourselves, are powerless in the face of governments and corporations.