The president's superb speech yesterday had many memorable moments. But I was struck particularly by this passage:
We are a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal. We live that truth within our military, and see it in the varied backgrounds of those we lay to rest today. We defend that truth at home and abroad, and we know that Americans will always be found on the side of liberty and equality. That is who we are as a people.
It is. Although it has always been a process, always a struggle, and America's great virtue is in having those struggles right out in the open, and the rawness of the issue placed front and center. Race first, of course. One of the most moving movies I've ever seen is "Glory", Ed Zwick's remarkable film about the first African-American volunteer company in the Civil War, its battle against prejudice on its own side as well as among the Confederate enemy. The reason it hit home for me is that I realized that this must have been the first time that black Americans actually fought for their own country that included them as citizens. Before then, they had been slaves or somehow marginal to the civic task of national defense. But by fighting for their country, in some ways they finally became full citizens of their own country.
It is not a right, military service. But it is transformative of a citizen's place in the world. We rightly see servicemembers as special - because they make possible everything else. Without defense, we would have no secure country. And without citizens prepared to risk their lives, we would have no defense. And when a country says that one section of its own citizenry is barred from service simply because of who they are, even though they may be fine soldiers, it is saying a very clear thing to them:
You are not real Americans. This is not your country. Because of who you are, you must take an observer's role in the defense of your own country. More to the point, if we discover that you are in the ranks, we will expel you. We will do this to you at any time, even if you have served honorably for years. We will strip you of your pension. We will allow anyone to expose you. And even if your skills - like fluent Arabic - are desperately needed, you are so repulsive to the military, and so disruptive to its cohesion, that we will throw you out anyway. There is nothing you can do to avoid this. There is no act heroic enough to overcome this. There is no record good enough to avoid it. You are beneath this ultimate act of citizenship because of who you are.
The sad truth, then, is that the president was wrong yesterday. When he said
We are a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal. We live that truth within our military,
He misspoke. We do not live that truth. We betray it.
And there are some Americans whose open, proud chance for glory is yet to come.
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