When I was young, I kept a pamphlet in my room: “How to Respect and Display Our Flag.” It was from the U.S. Marine Corps, dated March 1968. I still have that pamphlet; here’s a photo of it:
Some of its guidance is now (it saddens me to say) obsolete. Consider the following: “Do not use the flag as a portion of a costume or athletic uniform. Do not embroider it upon cushions or handkerchiefs nor print it on paper napkins or boxes.”
Nowadays, flags are everywhere. They are on football helmets and baseball caps. They are on bathing suits (!) and shirts, jackets and tops. I once bought an ice cream cone at a baseball game in a paper wrapper decorated by the American flag.
Fifty years ago, there was a sense our flag was special, meaning you didn’t put one everywhere and on everything. All these representations of the flag that you see today, especially those flag lapel pins most often seen on sportscasters and politicians, strike me as opportunistic and self-celebratory rather than respectable tributes to Old Glory.
My flag handbook also says, “When carried, the flag should always be aloft and free–never flat or horizontal.” I suppose they couldn’t imagine in 1968 flags so gigantic that they could only be carried flat or horizontal.
A book of more recent vintage (2001), “United We Stand,” celebrates efforts during World War II to bring the nation together by marking the Fourth of July in 1942 with images of the flag on magazines. One of my favorites from that time showcased Veronica Lake:
From this book, I was reminded of the original “Pledge of Allegiance”:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag
and the Republic for which it stands,
one nation indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.
The phrase “under God” was only added in 1954 at the height of McCarthyism.
I favor the original pledge. If it was good enough for the “Greatest Generation” who fought and won World War II, it should be good enough for these times.
I was also reminded of a song that I rarely hear nowadays: “You’re a Grand Old Flag” by George M. Cohan (played, of course, by Jimmy Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” as mentioned on the cover above). Remember the opening stanza of that song?
You’re a grand old flag.
You’re a high-flying flag
and forever in Peace may you wave.
“Forever in peace may you wave” — how come we don’t hear that sentiment today?
Editor’s Intro: The first time I went to a movie on a military base, I was surprised when the national anthem began to play, and everyone stood up. It seemed so incongruous. My buddy who came with me refused to stand at first, but after catching grief from a fellow movie-goer, he reluctantly stood. I stood too, of course, but I felt silly doing so. The whole practice just seemed to cheapen the anthem.
Nowadays, the anthem and similar patriotic songs are everywhere, especially “God Bless America” and “God Bless the USA,” with its refrain about being “Proud to be an American.” Watching NFL football this past weekend, I noticed every announcer on CBS during halftime wore flag lapel wins. Easy gestures of patriotism are everywhere in my country, even at classical concerts, notes my good friend and fellow contrarian, Richard Sahn. But are they not patronizing to the audience? W.J. Astore
I recently attended a classical music concert in the town where I live. The orchestra began by playing the national anthem. Many in the audience sang the words. I felt like I was at a baseball game or a military parade or the moment before the fireworks at a July 4th celebration. I stood up, of course, for my own survival in the rural and conservative community where I live.
But I couldn’t help but engage in some critical thinking. What is the connection between this perfunctory display of patriotic observance and enjoying the music, I kept asking myself. I couldn’t conjure up a rational relationship. If there was a global anthem–perhaps honoring the potential of great music to bring the people of the world together–singing such an anthem would have been appropriate. Come to think of it, great artistic works and performers have the very potential to do just that, unite humanity. Yet all national anthems of developed countries when performed in public forums only enhance the capacity to see the social world in terms of us versus them. Depending on the government in power this division can have moral or immoral consequences if we define “immoral” as decision-making that promotes unnecessary death and suffering.
So, why play a national anthem before a classical concert featuring international music, and why stand up for it? I’ve come up with several possible reasons:
One reason people rise for the national anthem is because they don’t want to stand out in the crowd and endure negative reactions. (My reason.)
Another reason seems to be pure habit, which is the result of socializing and conditioning throughout one’s life.
Pride in nation as such, which would apply to people of any specific nationality. This is pure love of country, an easy form of patriotism with no cost to the individual.
The belief, undoubtedly a “true belief” as author Eric Hoffer would argue (“The True Believer”) that one is truly honoring those who sacrificed themselves in a nation’s wars, that one is somehow expressing thanks to the dead and their families. Or, that the nation itself is alive or conscious. Therefore, one is thanking the nation for winning its wars.
Obedience to the norm of standing up for national anthem, thinking that it is an obligation to society, perhaps authority figures in general, to respect the national anthem.
Finally, a cynical explanation for the musical director of the orchestra beginning a concert with the national anthem is pleasing or obeying members of the board of the orchestra who contribute financially, and who insist on the observation of “patriotic” norms.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in honoring or supporting courageous individuals who have fought in wars or sacrificed themselves for what they believed was necessary for freedom and survival. Not just war heroes but moral heroes, men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day.
But I oppose national anthems because they feed nationalism which is conducive to unnecessary death and torture. I am also opposed to national anthems because there is no such thing as a country or nation; there are only people, laws, culture (material and non-material).
Countries exist in consciousness. They are abstract ideas, political constructs. Believing they exist as if they were a reality sui generis, as if they were an actual person or even a thing, is reification. The word is not the thing, the map is not the territory.
Instead of rising for jingoistic national anthems, people should instead rise to applaud a moving performance by the musicians and conductor after listening to, say, Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. Music is real in a way that nations are not.
Musical concerts should provide a haven for celebrating the human condition, not for anthem-singing that divides humanity. My protest that night was a silent one, but internally I raged against the conflation of the state with the arts when the national anthem began to play.
Richard Sahn is a sociology professor and independent thinker.
Judging by my local newspaper and email stream, Memorial Day is about sales and selling, a reminder that the business of America is business. But of course Memorial Day is truly about honoring the dead in America’s wars, the veterans who died defending freedom. Sadly, far too often wars are not fought for high ideals, but that is not the fault of the veteran.
As we remember American veterans this weekend, those who died in the name of defending our country and Constitution, we would do well to ask whether our sympathy for the dead should be limited only to those who fought under the U.S. flag, or whether we should extend it to “the enemy.” In other words, to all those who suffer and die in wars.
Consider the Vietnam War, a war the USA could and should have avoided. But we didn’t, and that war was prosecuted with a ruthlessness that was often barbaric. America lost more than 58,000 in that war, and their names are on the wall in Washington, D.C. We visit that wall and weep for our dead.
But what about the Vietnamese dead? Estimates vary, but Vietnam lost roughly three million people in that war, with some figures approaching four million. The war in Southeast Asia spread to Laos and Cambodia as well, leading to genocide and the “killing fields” of Cambodia. Do we weep for their dead?
Vietnam today has friendly relations with the USA. The enemy of the 1960s is, if not an ally, at least a trade partner. There are warm friendships shared between our peoples, nurtured by cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Vietnam.
So, in the case of the Vietnam War, as we remember the American Vietnam veteran, should we not make room in our hearts to remember the Vietnamese veteran as well?
Ultimately, our fellow human beings are not the enemy. War is the enemy. A will to destruction is the enemy. And those caught up in war–the innocent victims on all sides–are worthy of being memorialized.
Far too often, national flags become little more than tribal symbols, much like bikers’ gangs and their colors. Wear the wrong color, belong to a rival gang, and violence, even a mass shooting, is the result.
Are we fated to keep saluting our own colors while reviling the colors of others? Are we fated to keep marching off to war under the American flag while killing those who fly a different flag?
Yes, there are necessary wars. I for one wouldn’t want to live under the Nazi Swastika. But history shows that necessary and just wars are rare. For every past war fought for a “just” cause, so many more have been fought for loot, money, power, territory, radical ideologies of one sort or another, dynastic advantage, prestige, and on and on. The one constant is the troops on all sides who march and die.
A memorial day that remembers the “enemy” dead as well as our own would, perhaps, be a small step toward a memorial day in the future with far fewer war dead to memorialize.
As Veterans Day approaches, I thought I’d revive a column I wrote for TomDispatch.com back in 2009. I continue to marvel at the militarism of the USA, and the way in which the troops are defined as “warriors” and “warfighters” who increasingly see themselves as being divorced from, and superior to, “civilians” in the USA. Of course, there was a time in America when our troops were proud to define themselves as citizen-soldiers, with the emphasis on citizen. Not anymore. The ethos has changed, pushed toward a “professional” military that sees itself as a breed apart. And that’s not good for democracy.
I still recall the example set by Major Dick Winters, memorialized in the “Band of Brothers” series on HBO. Dick Winters swore that when the war was over against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, he’d return to his farm in Pennsylvania and leave soldiering and war behind. And that’s exactly what he did. No “warrior” nonsense for him.
Anyway, here’s the article I wrote five years ago. Sadly, its theme is more relevant today than it was in 2009.
What Ever Happened to Gary Cooper? A Seven-Step Program to Return America to a Quieter, Less Muscular, Patriotism By William Astore
I have a few confessions to make: After almost eight years of off-and-on war in Afghanistan and after more than six years of mayhem and death since “Mission Accomplished” was declared in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I’m tired of seeing simpleminded magnetic ribbons on vehicles telling me, a 20-year military veteran, to support or pray for our troops. As a Christian, I find it presumptuous to see ribbons shaped like fish, with an American flag as a tail, informing me that God blesses our troops. I’m underwhelmed by gigantic American flags — up to 100 feet by 300 feet — repeatedly being unfurled in our sports arenas, as if our love of country is greater when our flags are bigger. I’m disturbed by nuclear-strike bombers soaring over stadiums filled with children, as one did in July just as the National Anthem ended during this year’s Major League Baseball All Star game. Instead of oohing and aahing at our destructive might, I was quietly horrified at its looming presence during a family event.
We’ve recently come through the steroid era in baseball with all those muscled up players and jacked up stats. Now that players are tested randomly, home runs are down and muscles don’t stretch uniforms quite as tightly. Yet while ending the steroid era in baseball proved reasonably straightforward once the will to act was present, we as a country have yet to face, no less curtail, our ongoing steroidal celebrations of pumped-up patriotism.
It’s high time we ended the post-Vietnam obsession with Rambo’s rippling pecs as well as the jaw-dropping technological firepower of the recent cinematic version of G.I. Joe and return to the resolute, undemonstrative strength that Gary Cooper showed in movies like High Noon.
In the HBO series The Sopranos, Tony (played by James Gandolfini) struggles with his own vulnerability — panic attacks caused by stress that his Mafia rivals would interpret as fatal signs of weakness. Lamenting his emotional frailty, Tony asks, “What ever happened to Gary Cooper?” What ever happened, in other words, to quiet, unemotive Americans who went about their business without fanfare, without swagger, but with firmness and no lack of controlled anger at the right time?
Tony’s question is a good one, but I’d like to spin it differently: Why did we allow lanky American citizen-soldiers and true heroes like World War I Sergeant Alvin York (played, at York’s insistence, by Gary Cooper) and World War II Sergeant (later, first lieutenant) Audie Murphy (played in the film To Hell and Back, famously, by himself) to be replaced by all those post-Vietnam pumped up Hollywood “warriors,” with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger-style abs and egos to match?
And far more important than how we got here, how can we end our enduring fascination with a puffed up, comic-book-style militarism that seems to have stepped directly out of screen fantasy and into our all-too-real lives?
A Seven-Step Recovery Program
As a society, we’ve become so addicted to militarism that we don’t even notice the way it surrounds us or the spasms of societal ‘roid rage that go with it. The fact is, we need a detox program. At the risk of incurring some of that ‘roid rage myself, let me suggest a seven-step program that could help return us to the saner days of Gary Cooper:
1. Baseball players on steroids swing for the fences. So does a steroidal country. When you have an immense military establishment, your answer to trouble is likely to be overwhelming force, including sending troops into harm’s way. To rein in our steroidal version of militarism, we should stop bulking up our military ranks, as is now happening, and shrink them instead. Our military needs not more muscle supplements (or the budgetary version of the same), but far fewer.
2. It’s time to stop deferring to our generals, and even to their commander-in-chief. They’re ours, after all; we’re not theirs. When President Obama says Afghanistan is not a war of choice but of necessity, we shouldn’t hesitate to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Yet when it comes to tough questioning of the president’s generals, Congress now seems eternally supine. Senators and representatives are invariably too busy falling all over themselves praising our troops and their commanders, too worried that “tough” questioning will appear unpatriotic to the folks back home, or too connected to military contractors in their districts, or some combination of the three.
Here’s something we should all keep in mind: generals have no monopoly on military insight. What they have a monopoly on is a no-lose situation. If things go well, they get credit; if they go badly, we do. Retired five-star general Omar Bradley was typical when he visited Vietnam in 1967 and declared: “I am convinced that this is a war at the right place, at the right time and with the right enemy — the Communists.” North Vietnam’s only hope for victory, he insisted, was “to hang on in the expectation that the American public, inadequately informed about the true situation and sickened by the loss in lives and money, will force the United States to give up and pull out.”
There we have it: A classic statement of the belief that when our military loses a war, it’s always the fault of “we the people.” Paradoxically, such insidious myths gain credibility not because we the people are too forceful in our criticism of the military, but because we are too deferential.
3. It’s time to redefine what “support our troops” really means. We console ourselves with the belief that all our troops are volunteers, who freely signed on for repeated tours of duty in forever wars. But are our troops truly volunteers? Didn’t we recruit them using multi-million dollar ad campaigns and lures of every sort? Are we not, in effect, running a poverty and recession draft? Isolated in middle- or upper-class comfort, detached from our wars and their burdens, have we not, in a sense, recruited a “foreign legion” to do our bidding?
If you’re looking for a clear sign of a militarized society — which few Americans are — a good place to start is with troop veneration. The cult of the soldier often covers up a variety of sins. It helps, among other things, hide the true costs of, and often the futility of, the wars being fought. At an extreme, as the war began to turn dramatically against Nazi Germany in 1943, Germans who attempted to protest Hitler’s failed strategy and the catastrophic costs of his war were accused of (and usually executed for) betraying the troops at the front.
The United States is not a totalitarian state, so surely we can hazard criticisms of our wars and even occasionally of the behavior of some of our troops, without facing charges of stabbing our troops in the back and aiding the enemy. Or can we?
4. Let’s see the military for what it is: a blunt instrument of force. It’s neither surgical nor precise nor predictable. What Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago remains true: when wars start, havoc is unleashed, and the dogs of war run wild — in our case, not just the professional but the “mercenary” dogs of war, those private contractors to the Pentagon that thrive on the rich spoils of modern warfare in distant lands. It’s time to recognize that we rely ever more massively to prosecute our wars on companies that profit ever more handsomely the longer they last.
5. Let’s not blindly venerate the serving soldier, while forgetting our veterans when they doff their spiffy uniforms for the last time. It’s easy to celebrate our clean-cut men and women in uniform when they’re thousands of miles from home, far tougher to lend a hand to scruffier, embittered veterans suffering from the physical and emotional trauma of the battle zones to which they were consigned, usually for multiple tours of duty.
6. I like air shows, but how about — as a first tiny step toward demilitarizing civilian life — banning all flyovers of sporting events by modern combat aircraft? War is not a sport, and it shouldn’t be a thrill.
7. I love our flag. I keep my father’s casket flag in a special display case next to the very desk on which I’m writing this piece. It reminds me of his decades of service as a soldier and firefighter. But I don’t need humongous stadium flags or, for that matter, tiny flag lapel pins to prove my patriotism — and neither should you. In fact, doesn’t the endless post-9/11 public proliferation of flags in every size imaginable suggest a certain fanaticism bordering on desperation? If we saw such displays in other countries, our descriptions wouldn’t be kindly.
Of course, none of this is likely to be easy as long as this country garrisons the planet and fights open-ended wars on its global frontiers. The largest step, the eighth one, would be to begin seriously downsizing that mission. In the meantime, we shouldn’t need reminding that this country was originally founded as a civilian society, not a militarized one. Indeed, the revolt of the 13 colonies against the King of England was sparked, in part, by the perceived tyranny of forced quartering of British troops in colonial homes, the heavy hand of an “occupation” army, and taxation that we were told went for our own defense, whether we wanted to be defended or not.
If Americans are going to continue to hold so-called tea parties, shouldn’t some of them be directed against the militarization of our country and an enormous tax burden fed in part by our wasteful, trillion-dollar wars?
Modest as it may seem, my seven-step recovery program won’t be easy for many of us to follow. After all, let’s face it, we’ve come to enjoy our peculiar brand of muscular patriotism and the macho militarism that goes with it. In fact, we revel in it. Outwardly, the result is quite an impressive show. We look confident and ripped and strong. But it’s increasingly clear that our outward swagger conceals an inner desperation. If we’re so strong, one might ask, why do we need so much steroidal piety, so many in-your-face patriotic props, and so much parade-ground conformity?
Forget Rambo and action-picture G.I. Joes: Give me the steady hand, the undemonstrative strength, and the quiet humility of Alvin York, Audie Murphy — and Gary Cooper.