Our military serves civilians

Published 9:56 am Monday, July 6, 2009

Last week’s military coup in Honduras prompted fresh meaning to this year’s Independence Day observance here. When the American colonies declared independence from Britain in 1776, there was implicit in the Declaration independence also from internal tyranny—including freedom from military control of the country. The American armed forces exist to defend this country against foreign aggression and to serve the people and government as our elected civilian representatives direct. They do not operate governmental affairs and are as non-political as possible.

Mistakes have been made, of course, but they are corrected. These mistakes, moreover, have more frequently been made by the politicians attempting to misuse the armed forces than by the military itself by intruding into civilian affairs.

The American military is constantly being denigrated by some, usually the more politically and socially liberal, precisely because there can be no serious objections. The Honduran armed forces are not criticized at all. Any who have attempted this were jailed or, worse, drafted into the army.

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For the better part of 1986 and 1987 I was stationed in Honduras with the U.S. Army’s Task Force 364. Our publicly announced mission was to construct a road through the rugged mountains so composenos could transport their meager produce to market. By confidential agreement between our governments, we also were tasked to model proper operation of an army to encourage the Honduran army to a more appropriate attitude and behavior. In my observation, this was more the American State Department’s intention than that of the Hondurans. But we tried.

I met some wonderful men in the Honduran army, but they found it difficult to remain humane and respectful of civilians. I saw a regimental commander notice a desirable piece of agricultural land and take it over for his operation when he should have been with his troops. A colleague who spent many years in the country and regularly visited unit headquarters told me he seldom found battalion or regimental commanders present, because they were off to the capital of Tegucigalpa politicking.

They didn’t bother with a Selective Service System. When a unit needed recruits, they drove a truck into town on a Saturday night and picked up drunks and hauled them off to camp. If men went AWOL, they didn’t bother hunting them down; they just put an AWOL’s parents in jail until he turned himself in.

When I went “outside the wire,” the Honduran commander co-located with us insisted I be guarded by two of his armed soldiers. I snuck away as often as I could without them and ditched them as soon as I could when I hadn’t succeeded.

The young men brandished their weapons to scare the adults and impress the girls, and I was in real danger with them “guarding” me.

Some American missionaries in San Pedro Sula told me their children longed for typical American junk food, which the missionaries couldn’t afford. I collected a supply of PX junk food from our soldiers and took it to the children. When we drove our truck into their neighborhood, I didn’t understand why the streets were deserted. The missionary wife later wrote to me and reported their neighbors went into hiding when they saw an army vehicle approach.

When they learned our mission, the Honduran civilians just could not believe soldiers would do anything like this. The American army, they recognized, was totally different from the Honduran army.

This is why we had deployed. This, and to encourage such compassion among the Honduran soldiers. One of my more satisfying experiences was taking young Honduran officers, themselves fathers of little children, with me as we distributed clothing to poor people, which clothing had been donated by our soldiers. I saw tender smiles come to their faces as they put a new dress on little Honduran girls who had never worn a dress. There was warm humanity within their hearts, and it brought tears to our eyes to see it emerge. Our greater task was to encourage civilians to risk coming close to a soldier.

Honduras is the poorest country in Central America, and we encouraged each increment arriving for training, one plane every two weeks, to bring used clothing to give to Hondurans. Our soldiers soon began to buy new clothing with their own money, and the increased donations almost crowded our troops out of the planes.

As we redeployed, I had to get missionaries to distribute the clothing I had no time to get out.

This is what the American armed forces are; we serve as well as protect our civilians. They protect us without a coup.