A week after Super Bowl Sunday, I was reading Frederick Douglass’s “Fourth of July Address,” given by the intrepid abolitionist and eminent public intellectual on July 5, 1852 to several hundred spectators in Rochester, New York. It struck me then how contemporary Douglass’s antebellum insights into the nature of patriotism in America seemed, especially in the wake of an NFL season steeped in controversy over football players (mostly African-American) taking a knee during the national anthem. Their symbolic protest, dismissed by some, notably including a tweeting president, as unpatriotic, was intended to highlight how police encounters with people of color in this country all too often and disproportionately end in unjustified uses of deadly force.
At the time of his Fourth of July Address, Douglass was about fifteen years removed from a state of enslavement he managed, against steep odds, to escape and had become an orator of note in abolitionist circles. Attesting to a sense of trepidation in accepting an invitation to speak before such a large audience on their august day of national celebration, Douglass praised the generation of 1776 (“your fathers,” he calls them) for “lov[ing] their country better than their own private interests” and for their “solid manhood” in “preferr[ing] revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.”
Douglass then reminded his audience that, while it is easy in present times to celebrate the founders for resisting British oppression, “to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies” in the 1770s meant being pilloried and browbeaten as “plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men.” Moving beyond this critique of the easy and self-congratulatory patriotism of his contemporaries, Douglass raised the prospect that the founders’ great deeds might even be evoked by men of tyrannical intent: “The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.”
Douglass went on to warn his listeners, and free citizens of the American republic generally, against shirking their own responsibility for carrying on the emancipatory tradition celebrated each Fourth of July–“You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.”
While there is much more to Douglass’s powerful address, his opening discourse on the patriotic meaning of the Fourth of July provides a way of dousing the “fire and fury” that has been generated by the right-wing media around the symbolic protest started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and seeing the significance of that protest with a quiet clarity.
Douglass’s Fourth of July Address warns against the self-serving belief that routinized, programmed patriotic gesture is equivalent to a true love of liberty. He daringly calls out those who would abuse patriotic gesture in order to control others. His words remind us that the struggle for freedom is always a work in progress and that it is too easy to celebrate its provisional achievement after the hard and risk-laden work is done by others.
Douglass’s speech is part of a tradition of exposing empty patriotic gesture and challenging citizens to live up to the emancipatory demands of true patriotism, a tradition which Colin Kaepernick and his emulators can be seen as stalwartly embracing. His speech serves as a powerful rejoinder to those who would, like Donald J. Trump, attempt to shame NFL player-protesters into anthem-standing conformity with transparently cynical references to the sacrifices of US veterans and members of the armed forces.
M. Davout (pseudonym) is a professor of political science who teaches in the Deep South.
As soon as American athletes win an Olympic medal, it’s seemingly obligatory for someone to give them a flag so they can wrap themselves in it. Here’s Nick Goepper, who won a silver medal in skiing:
I’ve seen athletes from a few other countries do this, but not with the uniformity and urgency of U.S. athletes. Maybe American athletes just love their country more?
I vaguely recall “wrapping oneself in the flag” moments from previous Olympics that seemed spontaneous. What gets me today is how routine these moments have become. The American snowboarder Shaun White, for example, wrapped himself in the flag for his photo op, after which he dragged it on the snowy ground as he walked away, a transgression for which he apologized afterwards.
I understand athletes are proud to represent their countries, and understandably pumped after winning a medal. But do all U.S. medal-winners now have to pose with a flag draped about them?
The official medal ceremony features the flags of the medal winners, with the national anthem being played for the winner of the gold. I always thought that ceremony was more than sufficient as a patriotic display, and more consistent with the idea of the Olympics as an international event of diverse athletes.
What would happen if athletes, after winning their respective medals, wrapped themselves not in the flag of their respective countries, but in the Olympic flag showing the five interlocked rings? Would heads explode?
When it Comes to the NFL, Trump Should be Flagged and Ejected for Unnecessary Roughness
President Trump has once again attacked the NFL for exactly the wrong reasons. He wants NFL owners to fire players who take a knee during the national anthem. Their sin, according to Trump, is disrespecting the American flag. Trump also complains that the game has gotten soft, that big and exciting hits of the past are now penalized, so much so that today’s game is boring precisely because it’s insufficiently violent.
Nonsense. First, few players dare to use the game as a platform for protest, perhaps because they fear being blackballed like Colin Kaepernick, the talented quarterback who can’t find a job because he took a knee in protest against racism. Second, the NFL is awash in patriotic displays, everything from gigantic flags and military flyovers to special events to honor the troops. Just one example: During the opening game of this season, uniformed troops waving flags ran out on the field ahead of the New England Patriots as the team emerged from the tunnel. What are troops in camouflaged combat uniforms doing on the field of play?
With respect to violence, the NFL has only lately begun haltingly to address crippling injuries, especially brain abnormalities due to recurrent hits and concussions. Watching an NFL game is often an exercise in medical triage, as players are carted off the field with various injuries. A new feature this season is a tent on the sidelines that injured players may now enter to be treated away from the incessantly probing eyes of sideline cameras. Careers in the NFL are often cut short by crippling injuries, yet Trump claims the game is going down the tubes because it’s not violent enough.
Trump represents a minority view (I believe), but nevertheless a vocal one. Given his narcissism and the grudges he carries, one wonders if he attacks the NFL because of his failed bid to acquire the Buffalo Bills team back in 2014.
Football is the most popular sport in America. It speaks volumes about our culture. That Trump sees it as insufficiently violent and insufficiently patriotic — and that he’s cheered for making these claims — points to the gladiatorial nature of America’s imperial moment. Bread and circuses at home, wars abroad. And U.S. politicians who fiddle while the world burns.
Update: Trump’s comments have drawn a response during the first NFL game today (played in England). Here’s the headline at the Washington Post: NFL Week 3: Ravens, Jaguars respond to President Trump’s comments by linking arms, kneeling during anthem. It will be interesting to see how other teams respond today and during Monday night football.
One of the challenges of my teaching career was to encourage students to think critically about American history and actions. Since I taught at conservative institutions (the Air Force Academy; a technical college in rural Pennsylvania), many of my students had a strong “America: love it or leave it” mentality. They associated criticism with lack of patriotism. Fortunately, I had the advantage of wearing a military uniform (at the Air Force Academy) and later the status of a retired military officer (in Pennsylvania), so few students could readily dismiss my critiques as the work of a “libtard” leftist academic.
Patriotism, I would tell my students, meant an informed love of country, meaning that a patriot was open to seeing the faults in his or her country, and willing to work hard to change things for the better. The “love it or leave it” mentality, I explained, was a form of false patriotism; an unthinking form, a type of blind infatuation. Nationalism, in a word.
George Orwell, as usual, beat me to the punch, writing with great clarity in 1945 on the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.
By ‘nationalism’ I mean … the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism… By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people…
Orwell further explained the dangers of nationalism. The way a nationalist “thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige.” The way a nationalist’s “thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.” Nationalism, Orwell explained, “is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right …”
Flagrant dishonesty combined with unshakable certainty is a combustible mix. To explain why, it is worth quoting Orwell at length:
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind…
The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function…
The nationalist succeeds in constructing his own “reality,” a twisted version of alternative facts, an unthinking construct, a remorseless world without pity and compassion for others.
Contrast the nationalist to the patriot. A patriot thrives on thought. She is unafraid to face reality as it is; she does not suppress emotions like pity and compassion. True patriotism is critical, open-minded, and defensive, as Orwell explained in his Notes on Nationalism:
“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
It’s easy, in the “might makes right” reality of nationalism, for murder to become sanctioned as a positive good, or at the very least for nationalists to become oblivious to murder. As Orwell said, a nationalist can justify anything in the cause of “protecting” his construct of the state. Again, nationalism is a form of infatuation, a willed blindness, that can be used or manipulated to actuate, support, and justify the most inhumane actions.
The world today faces a rising tide of nationalism. Its dangers are well documented in history and well explained by Orwell. “Love it or leave it,” in short, is a murderous path, not a patriotic one. Let’s not go down it.
(My thanks to Mike Murry and Monotonous Languor for their stimulating comments on Orwell and nationalism at this site.)
In May 2003, Chris Hedges gave a controversial commencement speech at Rockford College (Rockford University since 2013) in Illinois. Back then, Hedges was an award-winning reporter for the New York Times who had recently completed a book, War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002), which I highly recommend. Earlier that month, President George W. Bush had given his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq war, and patriotic pride was riding high. Hedges had the foresight to recognize the mission had not been accomplished, and that the cost of war (all wars) would be high to the United States as well as to the countries purportedly liberated.
Booed and interrupted on several occasions during his speech, Hedges persevered. His words from 2003 are well worth reading again, especially as President-elect Trump assembles a team of former generals and hardline rightists with the promise of obliterating ISIS and of “winning” conflicts around the world.
Here is his speech, in its entirety. I have bolded one passage on Athens and the poison of war that is particularly telling for the current American moment. W.J. Astore
Chris Hedges at Rockford College, Commencement Address, May 2003
I want to speak to you today about war and empire.
Killing, or at least the worst of it, is over in Iraq. Although blood will continue to spill — theirs and ours — be prepared for this. For we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power, and security. But this will come later as our empire expands and in all this we become pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves. Isolation always impairs judgment and we are very isolated now.
We have forfeited the good will, the empathy the world felt for us after 9-11. We have folded in on ourselves, we have severely weakened the delicate international coalitions and alliances that are vital in maintaining and promoting peace and we are part now of a dubious troika in the war against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, two leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying out acts of gratuitous and senseless acts of violence. We have become the company we keep.
The censure and perhaps the rage of much of the world, certainly one-fifth of the world’s population which is Muslim, most of whom I’ll remind you are not Arab, is upon us. Look today at the 14 people killed last night in several explosions in Casablanca. And this rage in a world where almost 50 percent of the planet struggles on less than two dollars a day will see us targeted. Terrorism will become a way of life, and when we are attacked we will, like our allies Putin and Sharon, lash out with greater fury. The circle of violence is a death spiral; no one escapes. We are spinning at a speed that we may not be able to hold. As we revel in our military prowess — the sophistication of our military hardware and technology, for this is what most of the press coverage consisted of in Iraq — we lose sight of the fact that just because we have the capacity to wage war it does not give us the right to wage war. This capacity has doomed empires in the past.
“Modern western civilization may perish,” the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned, “because it falsely worshiped technology as a final good.”
The real injustices, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the brutal and corrupt dictatorships we fund in the Middle East, will mean that we will not rid the extremists who hate us with bombs. Indeed we will swell their ranks. Once you master people by force you depend on force for control. In your isolation you begin to make mistakes.
Fear engenders cruelty; cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis. In the center of Dante’s circle the damned remained motionless. We have blundered into a nation we know little about and are caught between bitter rivalries and competing ethnic groups and leaders we do not understand. We are trying to transplant a modern system of politics invented in Europe characterized, among other things, by the division of earth into independent secular states based on national citizenship in a land where the belief in a secular civil government is an alien creed. Iraq was a cesspool for the British when they occupied it in 1917; it will be a cesspool for us as well. The curfews, the armed clashes with angry crowds that leave scores of Iraqi dead, the military governor, the Christian Evangelical groups who are being allowed to follow on the heels of our occupying troops to try and teach Muslims about Jesus.
The occupation of the oil fields, the notion of the Kurds and the Shiites will listen to the demands of a centralized government in Baghdad, the same Kurds and Shiites who died by the tens of thousands in defiance of Saddam Hussein, a man who happily butchered all of those who challenged him, and this ethnic rivalry has not gone away. The looting of Baghdad, or let me say the looting of Baghdad with the exception of the oil ministry and the interior ministry — the only two ministries we bothered protecting — is self immolation.
As someone who knows Iraq, speaks Arabic, and spent seven years in the Middle East, if the Iraqis believe rightly or wrongly that we come only for oil and occupation, that will begin a long bloody war of attrition; it is how they drove the British out and remember that, when the Israelis invaded southern Lebanon in 1982, they were greeted by the dispossessed Shiites as liberators. But within a few months, when the Shiites saw that the Israelis had come not as liberators but occupiers, they began to kill them. It was Israel who created Hezbollah and was Hezbollah that pushed Israel out of Southern Lebanon.
As William Butler Yeats wrote in “Meditations in Times of Civil War,” “We had fed the heart on fantasies / the hearts grown brutal from the fair.”
This is a war of liberation in Iraq, but it is a war now of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation. And if you watch closely what is happening in Iraq, if you can see it through the abysmal coverage, you can see it in the lashing out of the terrorist death squads, the murder of Shiite leaders in mosques, and the assassination of our young soldiers in the streets. It is one that will soon be joined by Islamic radicals and we are far less secure today than we were before we bumbled into Iraq.
We will pay for this, but what saddens me most is that those who will by and large pay the highest price are poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the army because it was all we offered them. For war in the end is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians, and of idealists by cynics. Read Antigone, when the king imposes his will without listening to those he rules or Thucydides’ history. Read how Athens’ expanding empire saw it become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. How the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself.
This, Thucydides wrote, is what doomed Athenian democracy; Athens destroyed itself. For the instrument of empire is war and war is a poison, a poison which at times we must ingest just as a cancer patient must ingest a poison to survive. But if we do not understand the poison of war — if we do not understand how deadly that poison is — it can kill us just as surely as the disease.
We have lost touch with the essence of war. Following our defeat in Vietnam we became a better nation. We were humbled, even humiliated. We asked questions about ourselves we had not asked before.
We were forced to see ourselves as others saw us and the sight was not always a pretty one. We were forced to confront our own capacity for atrocity — for evil — and in this we understood not only war but more about ourselves. But that humility is gone.
War, we have come to believe, is a spectator sport. The military and the press — remember in wartime the press is always part of the problem — have turned war into a vast video arcade came. Its very essence — death — is hidden from public view.
There was no more candor in the Persian Gulf War or the War in Afghanistan or the War in Iraq than there was in Vietnam. But in the age of live feeds and satellite television, the state and the military have perfected the appearance of candor.
Because we no longer understand war, we no longer understand that it can all go horribly wrong. We no longer understand that war begins by calling for the annihilation of others but ends if we do not know when to make or maintain peace with self-annihilation. We flirt, given the potency of modern weapons, with our own destruction.
The seduction of war is insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true — it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time of our life, feel we belong.
War allows us to rise above our small stations in life; we find nobility in a cause and feelings of selflessness and even bliss. And at a time of soaring deficits and financial scandals and the very deterioration of our domestic fabric, war is a fine diversion. War for those who enter into combat has a dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and the grotesque. The Bible calls it the lust of the eye and warns believers against it. War gives us a distorted sense of self; it gives us meaning.
Once in war, the conflict obliterates the past and the future all is one heady intoxicating present. You feel every heartbeat in war, colors are brighter, your mind races ahead of itself. We feel in wartime comradeship. We confuse this with friendship, with love. There are those who will insist that the comradeship of war is love — the exotic glow that makes us in war feel as one people, one entity, is real, but this is part of war’s intoxication.
Think back on the days after the attacks on 9-11. Suddenly we no longer felt alone; we connected with strangers, even with people we did not like. We felt we belonged, that we were somehow wrapped in the embrace of the nation, the community; in short, we no longer felt alienated.
As this feeling dissipated in the weeks after the attack, there was a kind of nostalgia for its warm glow and wartime always brings with it this comradeship, which is the opposite of friendship. Friends are predetermined; friendship takes place between men and women who possess an intellectual and emotional affinity for each other. But comradeship — that ecstatic bliss that comes with belonging to the crowd in wartime — is within our reach. We can all have comrades.
The danger of the external threat that comes when we have an enemy does not create friendship; it creates comradeship. And those in wartime are deceived about what they are undergoing. And this is why once the threat is over, once war ends, comrades again become strangers to us. This is why after war we fall into despair.
In friendship there is a deepening of our sense of self. We become, through the friend, more aware of who we are and what we are about; we find ourselves in the eyes of the friend. Friends probe and question and challenge each other to make each of us more complete; with comradeship, the kind that comes to us in patriotic fervor, there is a suppression of self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-possession. Comrades lose their identities in wartime for the collective rush of a common cause — a common purpose. In comradeship there are no demands on the self. This is part of its appeal and one of the reasons we miss it and seek to recreate it. Comradeship allows us to escape the demands on the self that is part of friendship.
In wartime when we feel threatened, we no longer face death alone but as a group, and this makes death easier to bear. We ennoble self-sacrifice for the other, for the comrade; in short we begin to worship death. And this is what the god of war demands of us.
Think finally of what it means to die for a friend. It is deliberate and painful; there is no ecstasy. For friends, dying is hard and bitter. The dialogue they have and cherish will perhaps never be recreated. Friends do not, the way comrades do, love death and sacrifice. To friends, the prospect of death is frightening. And this is why friendship or, let me say love, is the most potent enemy of war. Thank you.
I read old stuff. Heck, I’m a historian: that’s what I’m supposed to do. So I was reading an old pamphlet on “The Indiana World War Memorial” (circa 1940) and came across the Pledge of Allegiance as it was recited before McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
You’ll notice what’s missing: that whole idea of “under God.” Those words were added in the early 1950s as a way of contrasting God-fearing (and God-favored, if you’ll recall American exceptionalism) Americans to the godless Communists.
You’ll recall, of course, that our nation was founded in part on religious freedom. The idea you could worship any god or gods you wanted to, or none at all. We should return to the original “godless” pledge. It served us quite well in World War II; it would serve us quite well today.
After all, Americans have no monopoly on God. Furthermore, God does not uniquely bless us. To believe that is to violate the real Ten Commandments, for to believe you are uniquely blessed by God is tantamount to raising yourself to the level of God. No — as Abraham Lincoln wisely said, we must not assume that God is on our side; we must pray that we are on His side.
Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com has a compelling list of his “ten commandments” in America’s ongoing war on terror. Like Lincoln, Engelhardt is wise enough not to assume that God is always chanting “USA! USA!”
Here are Engelhardt’s “ten commandments” for America and for a better world. I urge you to read the rest of his article at this link:
1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state. Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.
2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.
3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D’oh!
4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?
5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal. If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country — Iran — with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.
6.Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet. For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution. No information is worth such a price.
7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone. No matter the seriousness of the act, none — not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous — has been brought into a courtroom.
8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since. Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know. This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.
9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history. It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.
10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?”
Why not make a pledge, America, to these “commandments”? For they will help us to ensure liberty and justice for all.
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.