I was recently re-watching Glory (1989), starring Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman, with my high school senior son (for whom this was a first viewing). I’ve regularly shown sequences from this dramatization of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first “Colored” combat units to enter the fight against the Confederacy, to students in my “Film and Politics” course. Toward the end of the film, as the action swung to the 54th’s frontal assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863, I let slip, to my son’s chagrin, that the attack would fail and result in the regiment’s near destruction. He rhetorically asked why they would make a film about this regiment if the attack failed and all the main characters died.
My son is a tech geek with libertarian leanings and, as a result, he tends to analyze interactions through a transactional lens. In assessing whether a deal or agreement or commitment makes sense, he asks himself what each party materially stands to gain. From his point of view, the conclusion of the dramatic arc of Glory was problematic because it depicted men who failed and died rather than lived and won. And it left viewers with an emotional deficit rather than a surplus.
My son’s response to Glory put me to mind of the uproar over President Trump’s reportedly disdainful remarks about US war dead, which continues to reverberate in the mainstream media. The sources for the Atlantic Monthly story remain anonymous to date but Trump’s documented pattern of openly contemptuous remarks about John McCain’s harrowing imprisonment by North Vietnamese captors gives credence to reports that Trump considered fallen US soldiers to have been “suckers” and “losers.” He openly wondered during a visit with his then chief-of-staff John Kelly to the grave of Kelly’s soldier son why his son had put his life at risk for his country.
Trump’s reported comments and the attitude toward military sacrifice they purportedly exemplify have provoked attacks from Democratic politicians and a deafening silence from Republican politicians. It remains to be seen what lasting damage, if any, this controversy will do to Trump’s electoral prospects.
Sometime an outrageous comment can illuminate an issue worth thinking about that would otherwise be obscured in the dust of political combat. While Trump could be faulted for lacking decorum in pressing Kelly about the rationale for his son’s death, it isn’t an unserious question to wonder why someone would volunteer to be a soldier in a country at war. After all, countries or nation-states are mostly abstractions. People experience them mainly as aggregations of bureaucratic practices and routines which determine where borders are, where certain customs hold or one language or currency is in use rather than another.
It is intuitively graspable why one would be prepared to sacrifice one’s life for one’s child or one’s family or one’s close friend or even a flesh-and-blood stranger in a car accident whose distress provokes an immediate empathetic response. (Maybe not for Trump—he does not seem capable of empathizing with anyone enough to put his interests or life at risk for them.) But to be prepared to die for one set of bureaucratic routines and practices in a conflict with others fighting for a different set of bureaucratic routines and practices? How does that make sense?
Recognizing the challenge of getting citizens to feel a self-sacrificing love of country, the functionaries of emerging nation-states have come universally to institute all sorts of cultural practices designed to foster an emotional connection to one’s nation: pledges of allegiance, national anthems, patriotic rhetoric and ceremonies (e.g., France’s Bastille Day Parade), even the instrumentalization of war dead as a way of tugging on citizen heartstrings (e.g., Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address).
However, the fact that the inhabitants of a bureaucratically-inscribed geographic region come to love their country and feel ready to sacrifice their lives for its good does not, in and of itself, guarantee the reasonableness of their sacrifice or the moral worthiness of the policies that led to that sacrifice. People do end up dying for stupid or bad or even evil national causes and a government’s instrumentalization of the war dead has sometimes had a role in rallying people to do wrong or even terrible things. (See for example the Totenehrung at the 1934 Nazi Nuremberg Rally.) As numerous columns at Bracingviews.com have argued, notions of patriotic service to country can be enlisted in a program of militarization that mainly benefits corporate profits and bureaucratic growth.
So fault Trump for a narcissism so pathological that he cannot control his disdain and contempt whenever he is faced with the spectacle of people who have sacrificed in the service of others. Fault him for colossal presidential laziness and mammoth personal vanity in not wanting to pay respects at a second US military cemetery in France because the rainy weather would force him to take a long drive and get his hair wet. Fault him for his lack of sensitivity in needlessly rubbing raw the sorrow of a father at the grave of his fallen son. But do not let the anger (whether righteous or hypocritical) being expended on him in this heated moment of political controversy obscure the duty citizens have to judge the right and wrong of war policy and the reasonableness of dying for country.
M. Davout, a political science professor who teaches in the Deep South, is an occasional contributor to Bracing Views.