December 4, 2006
Bill Moyers's Message
— Martin E. Marty
Let me start unconventionally this Monday by passing on a link: http://www.tompaine.com/print/message_to_west_point.php. Let me also continue unconventionally. Most of the 375-plus "sightings" from the past almost eight years have fulfilled my assignment to go scouting for religiously themed items in the public sphere — but this time the scope is not clearly or purely religious. The link above takes you to excerpts from a speech Bill Moyers delivered as the Sol Feinstone Lecture on the Meaning of Freedom at the United States Military Academy on November 15. Moved, sometimes to tears and sometimes by the rage it inspires, I sent it on to many addresses on my list. Never have I had so many "thank you's" and "let everyone know's" as I did this week. That is why I am breaking precedent here and calling further attention to the speech.
In it, Mr. Moyers shows empathy, almost tender regard, for the consciences, assignments, and paradoxes that go with becoming a military officer during the Iraq war. Aware that any questioning of the prosecution of that war used to draw overwhelming public criticism of a sort which challenged the patriotism of the critic — and such questioning still draws some, even though most of the public has itself done such questioning — Moyers displays his love for the nation and its freedoms, which is the overall topic of the Feinstone lectures.
There is much historical accounting here, for which the speaker acknowledges the help of historian Bernard A. Weisberger. One hears of adventures and misadventures, conflicts and moments of consensus, all the way back to the American Revolution and through the Mexican War and the Vietnam War, itself prosecuted by conscience-troubled, now older-but-wiser Moyers, who was in the Johnson administration in the bad old days.
Part of what set Moyers off was the judgment by media mogul Rupert Murdoch that the casualties in Iraq were "minute" — a dismissal that inspires Moyers to provide some close-ups of people who have lost someone close to them, citizens who cannot live with the word "minute" as an R.I.P. wave of the hand.
The focus here is not on the men and women who have signed up to be cadets; Moyers makes clear that he is not a pacifist or a dissenter against all forms of military engagement. But, getting to his own field of specialization, he is disturbed that the present administration is not heeding warnings of ancients like James Madison and moderns like Dwight Eisenhower and others who feared the threat that comes from placing too much power of decision in the hands of the executive — meaning, in the end, chiefly in war-making.
Then he does turn to the paradoxes that military officers face, speaking
some "unpalatable" words when he "would prefer to speak
of sweeter things." Here he invokes one line of a sacred text, out
of context but still reinforcing: "You shall know the truth and the
truth shall set you free."
I think some credit must go to West Point leaders who invited someone they knew would be a critic, and to the audience, who will not find their wrestling with conscience, calls to duty, and love of country easier. Others will have the chance to give their versions of the truth, but Moyers offers a very bracing one.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.