For years, I misunderstood the Constitutional Oath which I regularly retook as a U. S. Marine. In fact, for a long time, I missed the point entirely. What did pretty words about freedom and democracy have to do with me? I was a member of a highly disciplined organization that frankly dealt in violence. It took deployments to Lebanon and Iraq to shake me from these complacent, mistaken beliefs. I eventually came to realize that it was precisely because military organizations had the power to oppress and do harm that members of the armed forces had a particular obligation to keep faith with the ideals that inhere in the Constitution.
My experiences in Lebanon and Iraq opened my eyes to the extreme fragility of the democratic institutions and attitudes that permit citizens of a country to live and to flourish in freedom. Lebanon and Iraq were countries that had given way to tyranny, divisiveness and disorder. I remember looking down a street in a once-beautiful, downtown district in Beirut, where buildings were so pockmarked with bullet holes it resembled natural erosion. But, this was no natural process, nor was it the work of an external invader. It was the people of Beirut themselves who had largely destroyed their own city during a brutal civil war. In Iraq, a shaky constitutional republic had been allowed to yield to one-man rule, leading to a predilection for aggressive war and oppression. I remember the tumultuous welcome we received from the people of Iraq who saw us as a means to restore their freedom, but efforts to restore democracy in Iraq illustrate how difficult it is once democratic institutions are lost, and that military force alone is not the right tool.
Like many of my fellow veterans, I came back from my combat deployments saddened, and even chastened, but with my faith in America reasonably intact. I now knew well that democracy was a fragile thing. But it never occurred to me, until recently, that this fragility might apply to my own country as well. After all, we purported to export freedom and democracy, so secure in our own institutions of liberty that we would spend American lives and resources to establish them abroad.
The last few years have been quite an awakening. Although America is not yet quite on the verge of resembling Iraq or Lebanon, I see signs of the decline in democracy that has led to conflict and oppression elsewhere, and that we have seen before in our own history. Efforts to suppress voting have grown from the manipulative to the blatant. A sitting president encouraged his followers to keep their fellow citizens from polls and to discount their votes when cast. All this has been the culmination of an administration repeatedly undermining democratic institutions, including efforts to politicize and otherwise weaken the constitutional foundation of the armed forces.
These developments should ring an alarm, loud as the sounding horns used by Marines to warn of an enemy attack – or perhaps like the notes of Reveille, waking us from complacency. Like many veterans, I have abandoned the apolitical position that I maintained for years in the mistaken belief that, as a military professional, even in retirement, I was aloof from political matters. We have realized that the republic we swore an oath to defend is now threatened as surely as from any external threat. If we don’t wake up, the beautiful America of our dreams, the reality and the aspiration, this shining city, may begin to disappear like the last poignant notes of a bugle, blowing not Reveille, but taps.
But this is a time for hope, not for despair. A generation of politicized veterans is joining a movement of citizens in an exercise in participatory democracy that the country has perhaps not seen since its origins. The electorate recently voted to unseat an anti-democratic demagogue. The challenges are great, but the opportunity is even greater. In the months and years to come, we will strengthen social bonds weakened by years of divisions and a pandemic and achieve a promise that has never quite been fulfilled. We must all work, each citizen in their own way, but all in some way, to strengthen and renew the American dream of democracy – not an America great again, but an America great anew, with a Constitution that applies to all, and that we can all believe in.
Reed Bonadonna is a former Marine Corps infantry officer and field historian with deployments to Lebanon and Iraq. He was Director of Ethics at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. His most recent book, “How to Think Like an Officer: Lessons in Learning and Leadership for Soldiers and Other Citizens,” was published by Stackpole in September, 2020.