Six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush went to Yankee Stadium to throw the first pitch before a World Series game. As journalist Bob Woodward described it, “he raised his arm and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd on the third base side of the field. . . . Probably 15,000 fans threw their arms in the air imitating the motion. Watching from owner George Steinbrenner’s box, Karl Rove thought, “It’s like being at a Nazi rally.”
It wouldn’t have been so disturbing if it had been an isolated (and understandable) moment of mass catharsis following the recent attack on the city. But public and mass displays of allegiance, mandatory patriotism and doctrinal deference to authority, authority in uniform especially, is becoming as fashionable as camouflage hats for tots and World War II fetishism.
Requisite recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance at public functions, singing “God Bless America” at sports events, fawning over the military in bumper stickers, in business-seminar speeches, in the public ceremonies of virtually every national holiday, in the $16-million exhibit at the Smithsonian of American wars dubbed “The Price of Freedom,” in the president’s silly and improper salutes every time he encounters a uniform — these are the signs of a society growing not only less secure with its civilian identity, but also more martial, more authoritarian, more uniformly submissive, less tolerant, much less democratic.
A Veterans Day presentation at my daughter’s elementary school last week included the recitation of a poem that’s been worming its way around the Internet for the last few months. Variously called “The Other Protester,” “Courthouse Lawn” or “The Flag,” it is an engaging bit of patriotica in defense of the flag and the military for which, apparently, it exclusively stands. It is written in a folksy style that, much like the heartland-simulating dialects of the Fox News channel’s evening inquisitors, masks the savage intolerance of the message — its denigration of protesters, its glorification of war, its implied threat to those who don’t submit. Then it goes for the kill:
It is the veteran, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the veteran, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the veteran, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the veteran, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble.
And so on down a firing squad for the Bill of Rights. Zel Miller used those lines, without attribution, in his anthrax-flavored keynote address at the Republican National Convention, changing “campus organizer” to “agitator” in a specially calibrated slap at the 1960s.
Like an urban legend, the poem is peddled in many variations. It is usually attributed to a “Father Denis Edward O’Brien, USMC.” There’s never been a clergy in the Marines. The Navy provides the priests. But O’Brien was indeed in the Marines in World War II. He became a priest after his discharge, and died in 2002. When I reached his sister-in-law, Jenny O’Brien, in the Dallas area, she said the family has been discussing the poem “over and over and over again” in the last few months, trying to figure out its authorship because of the attention it’s gotten. Father O’Brien was an avid forwarder of e-mails. “We’re not sure whether he did this or whether someone on an e-mail picked it up and put his name on it,” Jenny O’Brien said. “He didn’t write poems, so far as I know.”
However dubious the attribution, ascribing the poem to a priest gives it a halo of divine authority that helps further mask its virulence. The poem is gritty. It is a vet’s treat. It’s even moving in parts. It is also a rank distortion of the meaning of freedom and of the purpose of America.
It implies that soldiers are the fount of freedom rather than individuals and the plural powers of cultural and democratic wealth, that wars rather than ideas, human rights and laws made America, that force is the ultimate conviction. (If that were so, North Korea would be freedom’s Eden and the gulags its Philadelphias.)
And it ominously distorts the place of soldiers in any freedom-loving society. It isn’t for nothing that the founders intended to keep civilian rule paramount and any military presence in civilian life to a strictly regulated minimum.
“A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty,” James Madison wrote.
Soldiers are as much instruments of repression as of protection, depending on how they’re used, and by whom. Romanticizing them doesn’t honor them. It makes it easier to misuse them, as they are so effectively being misused in the folly in Iraq, while drowning reason and dissent in the thumbs-up submission of mass rallies.
Karl Rove had it right, as always. Nazis would feel cozy in this bounty of militarism.
PIERRE TRISTAM is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.