In recent weeks, Senators Daniel Akaka and Joseph Lieberman have pushed forward the “Civilian Service Recognition Act” to treat civilian civil servants killed in government service in the same manner as soldiers killed in the line duty in terms of the formal presentation of the American flag at their funeral.
On the one hand, the sentiment is honorable: Civilians killed in the Pentagon on 9/11 or in Oklahoma City served their country honorably and were killed because they were Americans working for the U.S. government. On the other hand, Akaka and Lieberman’s bill, as written, covers not only law enforcement but potentially every civilian employee killed on the job.
Soldiers and civilian bureaucrats are not the same. Soldiers, for example, knowingly go into harm’s way and cannot refuse an order. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, often shield themselves from harm and often refuse orders from above with impunity. Soldiers waive their First Amendment privilege. Civilian bureaucrats do not.
When I was in Baghdad during the early part of Iraq’s post-war reconstruction, many civilians liked to equate their GS rank with the supposed military equivalent. They might have imagined themselves equivalent to colonels or brigadier generals, but they had no idea of the sacrifices their military counterparts made or even the physical demands their military counterparts undertook. Simply put, the service of the Navy Seals who were lost last month in Afghanistan should not be equated, in this regard, with that of some think tank graduate or the administrative assistant to the deputy office director for the deputy assistant secretary of transportation.
Akaka and Lieberman are correct we should honor those who died in service whether they are civilian or military. In Oklahoma and at the Pentagon, we certainly did, and we can continue to do so on a case-by-case basis. But we should not blur the difference between military and civilian service by treating everyone the same, and giving all the same privileges and ceremonies. The Senate should keep military service distinct and not dilute our soldiers’ exceptionalism.