Stand Up Straight

By Captain Kevin Eyer, U.S. Navy (Retired)

When I joined the military, I received instruction on military law. I distinctly remember the lawyer-instructor saying, “When you join the military, you surrender none of your Constitutional rights.” I have thought about this over the years, and I can only conclude that I must not understand those Constitutional rights. For example, the First Amendment—Freedom of Speech—covers a lot more than U.S. citizens’ ability to say whatever they wish without the federal government trying to stop them. Nevertheless, it is a crime in the military to insult the President or to call a senior a jackass. Membership in certain groups also is forbidden, and military personnel are forbidden to use anything considered to be “hate speech.”

The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment covers the right to travel, which is a liberty not to be deprived without due process of law. Yet in Korea entire regions easily accessed by U.S. civilians are forbidden to uniformed personnel protecting the South from the North. In California, a sailor who wants to visit Mexico can do so only with the written permission of his or her commanding officer. It seems strange that a 16-year-old high school kid can go to Tijuana on a whim, but a sailor just back from Afghanistan needs written permission. And if that sailor is apprehended at the border without written permission in hand, passport notwithstanding, Navy Region Southwest will require that sailor be “processed” for military discipline. In Japan, military persons often are subjected to unreasonable curfews—not for their own safety but for the safety of the local populace. These curfews are inevitably inflicted on all military personnel because of the poor behavior of a few. Collective punishment is probably in conflict with the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “excessive fines imposed.” It is certainly forbidden by the Geneva Convention.

Some Make Sense

In many cases, the restrictions placed on military persons seem aimed at the support and enforcement of what is called “good order and discipline.” This makes sense, even if the restrictions may tread on a person’s Constitutional rights. After all, the military cannot do its job with everyone baldly speaking their minds in a manner obviously deleterious to order and discipline. But it is also safe to say that there are other restrictions imposed which seem to be more arbitrarily than uniformly invented and applied.

Then there are the many restrictions placed on young citizens whether they are in the military or not. These laws are based upon the idea that persons below certain ages are not competent to make some decisions: Evidently, society is keen to protect our “children” from themselves – and us from them. For example, a person cannot buy or drink a beer until they are 21. It might be nice if this age was based on something in particular, but it is not. In 1984, the federal government overrode the states’ prerogatives to decide the drinking age. Congress decided that 21 was the right age. But, 21 is certainly not the drinking age in other civilized countries, such as France, which has no minimum age for drinking, or Germany where one can drink at age 14 if accompanied by a custodial person.

Likewise, there are governmental prohibitions against young adults smoking cigarettes, voting, possessing firearms, gambling, renting cars, or adopting children. On the other hand, even though a 17-year-old cannot drink or vote, with parental permission, he or she can join the military and get killed or wounded in combat.

Looking Out for the Troops

Recently, I went to a Marine Corps gym in San Diego. As a U.S. citizen, I was proud to see the sort of kids who still voluntarily flock to service. They were a handsome lot, men and women alike. They were also bright, determined, and a serious gang of fearsome killers. Anyone who doubts that women are up to the task of combat should take a look at today’s women Marines, who are more like modern-day Lagerthas than millennial dilettantes.

In some ways, we do treat these young persons as adults. We allow them—we trust them—to do the nation’s most deadly tasks. We let them walk in fire. We let them face the cannons. We let them do things which we all well know could lead to their deaths, or loss of limb, or to their return from whatever duty we ask of them broken and a shell of their former selves. And we let them do it without batting an eye.

Yet, they can’t have a beer with their friends. We do not trust them to behave as adults, except in mortal combat, and we “protect” them from themselves. As a nation, we allow them to do things which most of us are afraid to do ourselves, but we treat them like children for our own convenience.  On top of that, because they are in the military, not only are they not allowed to speak freely, but we subject them to bizarre and capricious rules designed to protect others from them. 

I was at the movies on base the other night fidgeting while the anthem played. Then I thought about the scene at the base gym, and I looked around at the people in that theater. Not a single person was doing anything other than standing, sincerely, at attention. I stood up straight for those kids. So should you.

Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62). 

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

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