05/15/2007 02:13 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

John Edwards: Busting Conservative Myths about the Military

The Edwards campaign recently took an important step forward in citizen engagement. This website asks Americans to celebrate Memorial Day by showing support for the troops while opposing the war in Iraq. This is a smart move for many reasons. Despite the efforts of Rove and his PR minions, Americans have not fallen for the repeated attempts to make supporting the troops indivisible from supporting the President's war policy. Indeed, progressives, liberals and Democrats alike have learned a painful but important lesson since the end of the VietNam war thirty years ago. Today, from Code Pink to the Fighting Dems, the left has learned to be anti war without being anti-warrior.

Edwards is on the leading edge of an imminent and vitally important national conversation. How American citizens relate to and communicate with their military is known by the egghead-ish term "civil-military relations." In all my work with the military over the past decade, one lesson has been imparted to me time and again: that U.S. civil military relations are at a low point. This was true before the Iraq war, but is much worse today because of it. Citizens in continual communication with their military is a cornerstone of healthy democracy. Ideally, this relationship provides a sort of civilian-military safety net that not only gives citizens a healthy respect for public service, but makes them highly sensitive to the use of force. Such knowledge can also provide leverage against a runaway Executive Branch--something notably lacking in 2003 as the President declared war and rolled through Congress. The U.S. Congress has been woefully unprepared to fight the current administration, but it is dramatically improving. The House Armed Services Committee brought back the subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations this year. Maybe they will one day take up the issue of the lamentable politicization of the armed services. And check out this oversight plan. This is fantastic compared to the one that expired last January.

John Edwards is getting a track record for blazing the trail on national security. He was the only Democratic contender at the first debate to openly criticize the label "war on terror." His lonely stance was unusual and illustrates how fearful we've become as a nation as well as alienated from the fundamental principles of our own democracy. Military experts --many veterans among them-- have been broadcasting their dissatisfaction about this label since the war began. Terrorism is a tactic, not a long term strategy. And the Bush Administration has been getting a free ride on this moniker since the post 9/11 world began. But then, understanding the integrity and the substance of the military would explode the neo-conservative election strategy that revolves around distorted labels of strength and weakness, patriotism and "America hating." We will endure these talking points until a group of wise Republicans decide to take their party back. In the meantime, we on the left can obstruct this BS by retiring old, tired rhetoric like "Hawks vs. Doves", "guns vs. butter" or "military industrial complex." We've got most of the liberal arts grads. Let's make up some new language. We need to act fast. The military now sucks up over half of the money available in the budget every year (not counting the wars). Our service members are accumulating more and more responsibilities, from door kicking to election monitoring. We've laid far too many tasks at their feet, all without a thorough deliberation in Congress or elsewhere. Our elected leaders need to draw some clear boundaries before we all get used to the status quo. I'm a traditionalist on this score: I'd like to see the military circumscribed to very specific roles--only where the presence of credible coercion is vital. The division of labor for U.S. national security is a long awaited debate that is the centerpiece of civil-military relations today.

Over the next 18 months, presidential contenders have the opportunity to restore the civilian-military safety net that is so vital to our democracy. The Edwards campaign will doubtless be criticized for being too "activist." Some will suggest that his stance will be interpreted to mean that our service members have died in vain.

This accusation is wrong on many levels and reveals a great deal of ignorance about civil military relations. We all owe gratitude to those who serve in the military and should seek to emulate their ideals of service. But the admiration for the institution must be specifically separate from the war policies of elected leaders. In democracies, questions of peace and war or other threats to national security are the most important issues a society faces, and thus must be decided by the people, acting through their elected representatives. A democratic military serves its nation rather than leads it. Military leaders advise the elected leaders and carry out their decisions. Only those who are elected by the people have the authority and the responsibility to decide the fate of a nation. The left has got it right. It is imperative to democracy that those who dissent both love the warrior and hate the war at the same time.

You wouldn't know it by watching the Bush Administration, but military personnel swear to defend the Constitution, not the commander in chief. Rarely has there been a group of leaders who so vociferously claim to value the military, but who demonstrate so few actual military values. Sacrifice, collective outcomes, cooperation, prevention, internationalism and conservation come to mind.

The military in a democracy exists to protect the nation and the freedoms of its people. It does not represent or support any political viewpoint or ethnic and social group. Its loyalty is to the larger ideals of the nation, to the rule of law, and to the principle of democracy itself.

This is one of the fundamentals that the U.S. provides in several languages on the State Department website. There's also one on the list about an independent judiciary. Quick, somebody create a mirror site before it disappears. They still have 18 months, after all.