Dear Joshua Boston,
Six months into your civilian life after eight years in the United States Marine Corps, you've written to Senator Dianne Feinstein -- and to the country -- the following reaction to her sponsorship of a gun-control bill:
I will not register my weapons should this bill be passed, as I do not believe it is the government's right to know what I own. Nor do I think it prudent to tell you what I own so that it may be taken from me by a group of people who enjoy armed protection yet decry me having the same a crime. You ma'am have overstepped a line that is not your domain... I will not have some woman who proclaims the evil of an inanimate object... tell me I may not have one.
I am not your subject. I am the man who keeps you free. I am not your servant. I am the person whom you serve. I am not your peasant. I am the flesh and blood of America. I am the man who fought for my country. I am the man who learned. I am an American. You will not tell me that I must register my semi-automatic AR-15 because of the actions of some evil man.... We, the people, deserve better than you....
Cpl, United States Marine Corps
Even though you aren't being all that "respectful" in saying "ma'am" to a Senator whom you're also referring to as "some woman," adding that "We, the people, deserve better than you," you're making a far more important point very clear: You aren't feeling respected by certain public officials and fellow citizens for what you've given our country.
I think that you're right about that. And I think that you deserve a forthright explanation. Here's mine, as one of the fellow citizens whom you say you've kept free and whose freedom you can now have the satisfaction of watching me exercise, as I wouldn't be able to do in some other countries:
Although I respect what you have given as a Marine, I have a lot less respect for what you and others have been ordered to do during your years in the Corps. I believe that your commanding officers and the elected officials who gave them their orders have betrayed you. I believe that their cheerleaders on Fox News have betrayed you. I believe that you've been had.
During your eight years in the Marines, the people you took orders from -- and the the media people who cheered them on most loudly -- orchestrated and blundered their way and ours into two failing wars, not to mention into corrupt economic practices. They have weakened this republic, from without and within.
Marines don't complain about such things. The movie "Jarhead" may be pure Hollywood in some respects, but it's accurate in depicting the Marine admonition to "Suck it up," to prove you can take a bellyful of pain and even death and inflict the same on others.
You do that while in uniform because you believe you're doing it in the service of something worthwhile: As you put it now in your letter to Feinstein, "I am the man who keeps you free... I am the man who fought for my country. I am the man who learned."
In "The Suck," as some Jarheads call it, such higher justifications recede pretty much beyond visibility and moral imagination. Virtue lies mainly in the sacrifice itself.
Some people draw dangerous analogies between The Suck and the mafia, where a "stand-up guy" is the one who's tough enough to endure and inflict evil for his "family." All that counts are his loyalty and strength -- in the service of what, exactly, is for the don, not the mafia soldier, to decide.
But such analogies are wrong because, while the military operates abroad under conditions of lawlessness, force, and fraud, a mafia or other criminal gang operates inside of a constitutional republic and a civic-republican code of rational standards and conduct. Organized crime defies and subverts the real strengths of that order by replacing it with one in which power comes only from the barrel of a gun.
Now that you're out, though, a bellyful of pain seems to be coming out with you. And I'm writing to tell you, respectfully, that I think you're targeting your anger and defense strategy in the wrong direction.
Where should power come from in a free country? Alexander Hamilton wrote that history had destined Americans, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined for their political constitutions on accident and force."
Hamilton and the other founders of our republic chose reflection and choice. That's the choice that Marines are told they're defending. And, sometimes, they really are. It's why veterans returning to a republic from The Suck don't usually talk much about it: The justification for whatever they did abroad is that it has protected our freedom obligation and plain good luck to carry on Hamilton's experiment here at home, as I'm doing right here now.
You and I don't want to start thinking of conditions here in America as tribal or warlike. We don't want calculations based on force and fraud to overtake our politics, commerce, and culture, eclipsing the freedom that comes only with reflection, choice, and mutual trust. We don't want civil society to morph into that of "The Sopranos" and then "Jarhead." We don't want political movements, left or right, to become places where activists learn mainly to suck it up.
Or do we?
If we do, if we listen to those who are trying to get you to think that way, we contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat for the freedom you were out there defending.
As you know, in 1978, Feinstein, then chairman of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, all-but witnessed the assassinations just a few feet away of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by former supervisor and police officer Dan White, and it fell to Feinstein to announce those murders to the press.
So If Feinstein carried a concealed weapon for awhile and has had armed protection as a Senator, that's partly because White, who considered himself what you call "the flesh and blood of America," believed he had to defend himself and other Americans from Moscone and Milk.
A lot of people believe such things, especially if they watch too much Fox and play too many violent video-games. As one anonymous commenter on another website noted, the weapons industry (the gun makers, the sellers, the lobbyists) "prospers by stoking irrational fears - fears of armed home invasion, fears of government conspiracies, fears of mob violence, fears of invaders from other countries, fears of Doomsday scenarios, etc., and by providing a false sense of security and control through their products. Perhaps the problem is that a fearful society has no chance of being a civil society."
To understand how a society gets the chance of becoming more civil, it helps to think about how people who were almost completely unarmed -- in British India, the segregationist South, and Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union -- somehow nevertheless managed to bring down vast, national security states that had treated them like subjects and peasants.
Meanwhile, here in today's casino-financed, un-unionized, gladatorially entertained America, a lot of the people who are arming themselves against the irrational fears I just mentioned have let themselves become the meek servants of huge corporate bureaucracies that no one elected. And they've been led to think that public servants like Dianne Feinstein are their oppressors.
I know where blame-shifting like that comes from. And I know where it leads. Bold and brave though wielding a gun may seem, it always ends up pointing one to "easy" enemies on whom one wreaks vengeance for frustrations that are only half-acknowledged because we fear to face and reckon with our real challenges head-on.
Gun wielding shuts down public dithering, sure enough, but it shuts down democratic deliberation, too. With the help of demogogues and an increasingly surreal journalism and perverse public story telling that brutalizes public discourse, it touches raw nerves and warps the gunman's assessments of both the hardships and opportunities before him.
Political movements that rest on this way of thinking usually start with legitimate grievances and often goad them to a fleeting brilliance. I'm sure that you have legitimate grievances, too. But such movements always curdle and collapse, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on their own cowardice, ignorance, and lies.
Effective though it may seem, using a gun to "clear up" this confusion very quickly compounds the problems.
Don't go there, Mr. Boston. You're right to insist that you're not Feinstein's "subject." But she has never considered herself your ruler just because she thinks that people should register guns as they do cars. She's a fellow citizen who, like you, has served our country with ardor and dedication, at some personal and public risk.
Why not treat her that way? Write her an apology for some phrases you used, and then have a conversation with her.
By the way: What I've said above about the Marines and "the Suck" comes from an essay I wrote about "Jarheads" that wound up in Leatherneck -- the magazine of U.S. Marine Corps veterans. Although I've never been in the military, I'm proud that they saw fit to run it. There's freedom for you. Welcome back to it, sir.