It is necessary to begin with an acknowledgment that the word, patriotism, is not ordinarily used as a pejorative, hence, would not easily be recognized as such. Naturally this has something to do with dictionary usage, but more – far more – for the way states prepare the minds and habits of their people. The soft term would be persuasion. The harder and more operative term is exploitation.
The weekend CounterPunch adaptation of a 2001 article by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, The Good War, Revisited, includes a quote from Charles Beard (1874-1948), a portion here re-quoted:
“In short, with the Government of the United States committed under a so-called bipartisan foreign policy to supporting by money and other forms of power for an indefinite time an indefinite number of other governments around the globe, the domestic affairs of the American people became appendages to an aleatory [uncertain; chancy] expedition in the management of the world…” (emphasis added).
The citizen as appendage is not an appealing metaphor, and yet it is not only taken but taken exceedingly well by most Americans. And if it was true when Beard said it, that we and what we do are mere appendages to a growing imperialism, how much more true must it be today. No matter. Dan Rather, media figurehead, expressed this American “condition” when he stated that George Bush just has to tell him where to line up and he’ll do it. Yeah, he said that. The guy who was so tough on Nixon (not really).
I’m just off a weeklong holiday trip involving some legs on Southwest Airlines. It’s easily my favorite airline and I enjoy the liberty they give to the flight attendants to act out their personalities, although I get the sense that much of their schtick originates in-house.
On one of the flights there were some young, uniformed military personnel. I had noticed in the pre-flight waiting area a young man and woman, both in camouflage fatigues, she with a large backpack. As we inched to the gate at the end of one leg, an attendant solemnly requested that all passengers remain seated while these – in rough paraphrase – brave men and women who have just been deployed overseas and will be fighting on our behalf so that we may remain free have the honor of exiting first. This request was greeted by some polite applause, and then a woman began singing God Bless America. Several seemed to join her but it quickly died out. And then the troops exited to more applause.
A scene like this (familiar to many readers) renders with clarity the excellent selling job the state has done to its “appendages” in pursuance of its power arrangements. It is at once maddening, sad, and tragic.
Maddening that so many people can’t (or won’t) see through a selling technique that, while cleverly done, shouldn’t fool anybody. Sad to witness the Dependent Mind, the mind given over to authority and orthodoxy. Tragic that the young will learn to hate, fight, and die, and cause the reciprocal.
And all at once to see how saturated the country is with a patriotism that is blind to its rotten core. That makes it useless to interfere with the flight attendant that they’re not fighting on our behalf and that only our own government can take away our freedom. That makes it useless to shout down the clapping and singing. That makes it useless to do anything to embarrass the young soldiers that are on the wrong end of all this who actually might bleed and die and never come back. How useless is this patriotism.
And how we respond to this bleeding and dying conforms to our political views about war-making. How are wars started and should it make a difference which side was the aggressor?
One response to this resulted in something known as Patriot Golf Day, after that darling creation of our legislature, the Patriot Act. As a life member (longevity, retired) of the Professional Golfers Association of America and one who still receives media from the association, I’m presented with some of the promotion associated with this particular day.
It began when Dan Rooney, golf professional turned F-16 fighter pilot in Iraq and just off his second tour, had an experience on a commercial airliner like the one just described, only more sobering. The captain’s voice over the intercom:
We have an American hero on board making his final journey from Iraq.
Killed by accident. A chain hoist striking him across the neck. Rooney waited with the other passengers and saw below on the tarmac the American-flag-draped coffin that had been removed from the plane. It was the first war coffin he had seen and it moved him to create a local Fallen Heroes golf tournament with proceeds going to the children of soldiers killed in the war. He quickly expanded it into the national Patriot Golf Day, with support from corporations and associations, amongst them my association, the PGA of America.
Rooney was no stranger to death. He had just never seen it up close. Speeding along at high altitude, supersonically and imperviously, while dropping bombs insulates one from what happens on the ground. The pain. The suffering. The coffins.
His response to the coffin on the tarmac in the rain and the pain of the family members might have taken a different trajectory. He might have wondered, for instance, who is to blame for this? Instead of counting only the lost American lives, he might have at least considered the infinitely more lost Iraqi lives, the more so because we went there. They didn’t come here.
Others have gone through similar experiences to his and come to different conclusions, among them Veterans For Peace, that publishes The War Crimes Times. The masthead:
We will abolish war crimes when we abolish war – which is a crime in itself
Any question of honor – honoring fallen heroes – if the word honor is to have any meaning at all, must refer to the question of goodness. Most good, least good, or plainly at the extremes, simply, good and evil. Does it matter which side started a war? This is not a tough question. What American wouldn’t be able to answer yes, almost reflexively, if the US was not one of the sides? Patriotism can do that to you. It can make you misplace the blame. That’s the Dependent Mind.
The ultimate cynicism of the motivational state consists in forcing its soldiers into a position where their lives are at jeopardy and declaring them brave in advance.
Pin medals on those who fight; jail those who refuse. That’s the game in a nutshell. That’s how it works. Lily Tomlin once mused, what does it mean to be a success in a mediocre world? Following that, what does it mean to be honored by a country that has no respect for international law? To receive the adulation of fellow citizens whose reactions are the patriotically-induced equivalent of canned laughter? Like declaring soldiers brave in advance.
Until we begin to place the honor where it is most deserved – with Veterans For Peace and with the few, not the many, soldiers of conscience who refuse to serve, and Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers of conscience, and there are others, perhaps then we should recognize the honorable service of those that, like I said, “are at the wrong end of all this” and for whatever reason, and there are many, have participated in it and believed they were doing it for the right reasons. For this, we can and should presume their innocence.
James Rothenberg can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org