O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!
- America: a Poem for July 4th (1911)
A few years ago, I traveled back to my Ohio hometown for Memorial Day weekend. It’s a small community, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in the eastern part of the state, and has seen some better times. The death of steel has hit the community hard – really hard. Fifteen to twenty percent unemployment is the norm. Every presidential candidate since Clinton has come through campaigning on the promise of bringing back the steel jobs – and none of them ever have.
But I wasn’t there to talk economics, I was there specifically to talk at the community’s memorial day event, which I was very humbled to do. Recently back from Afghanistan, I wanted to share how exactly the experience had shaped me and how it had made me rethink how I considered war. I took a long time drafting what I wanted to say. I dug up stories of the town’s World War I veterans and heroes. I quoted Rupert Brooke, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delanor Roosevelt. I said that war is terrible – it is not glorious – but it is necessary, in some cases, to protect ourselves and those who are helpless. Memorial Day, I said, should be a day that we live for those who have died for the ideals that we hold dear, and respect their memory “by living out our lives, as they would have done, by loving our neighbors, by teaching our children to know and honor their memory, by doing good in the world, by seeking to always make the world a better place, by choosing the gentle word over the harsh gesture.”
The next speaker then walked up to the podium: a Vietnam veteran who had served in the Marine Corps. This was made abundantly clear by the dress blues he was wearing – as well as his high and tight haircut and R. Lee Ermey style of speaking. With white-gloved knife hands, he pointed to the red stripe on his trousers and barked, “Red. The color of blood. The blood of patriots. Because to be a patriot is to shed blood. And only those who have shed blood, as I have, know what true patriotism is. And the blood that is shed is sacred. This country is sacred. This is the greatest nation in the world and I will not hear a word against it.”
Patriotism. What is it? Is it, as the veteran said, the purview of only those who have sacrificed their blood on the battlefield? Or is it something more, something far more egalitarian?
Let me return you to the beginning of this piece and to the stanza of America, the Beautiful that sits at the top. I cannot remember a time where I was able to sing the verse “Who more than self their country loved/And mercy more than life,” without feeling my vocal cords constrict and fail. There is a deep power in the act of sacrifice, as many religions throughout the world have noted. But does sacrifice in a sense purify a cause, making an unjust cause a just one? Who measures, who determines?
Back again to the soft May sun of the Ohio day. The birds chirp in the background and now the veteran’s voice is rising, in strident tones, and I am shifting uncomfortably in my seat because his talk smacks of nationalism and jingoism. But the audience loves it. They love being told that there is a divide between true patriots and the rest of the country. They love hearing that this is the greatest nation in the world that can do no wrong. They love being able to heap admiration and praise onto the 1% of those who’ve served without having to take the time to deeply analyze why those young men were bleeding in Vietnam in the first place. Because this version is simple. Because this definition of patriotism is black and white, or, I suppose, red, white, and blue. They know where the lines are, and they can say that they support the true patriots.
It is a very seductive way of thinking, as I know, since I once viewed service and conflict along those same lines.
If you tend to spend some time on social media, as I am wont to do, you will come across those who have added the word “patriot” into some part of their bio or online identity, as if it were a badge of honor to announce to the world that this person was a “real American.” Quite often, these individuals are also sporting what I call the “warrior ensemble” of Spartan pictures, American flag-themed everything, and a decidedly us-versus-them mentality. By the very act of adding “patriot” to their bylines, they have defined themselves as being in the “good guy” group. Therefore, anyone who disagrees with them is not a patriot and their opinion is invalidated.
Back in 1776, the orator Thomas Paine wrote his famous pamphlet entitled, simply, The Crisis. The opening lines should be familiar to all students of American history: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Less known is the rest of the pamphlet, which Paine uses to divide the population into the real patriots and the “sunshine patriots,” and then advocates for taking the property of the latter and prosecuting them for their laxness. The use of the term to divide people into classes is, therefore, nothing new.
Patriotism and love of country are noble things. They inspire civic virtue, that which our Republic requires to survive. But love of country does not mean accepting the United States at face value; it means always working towards making the country match its ideals of freedom, justice, and equality. Sometimes that means standing up and saying that things are wrong or disordered, which can be unpopular.
Today, the term “patriot” has taken on nationalistic and divisive overtones. It is a term used to set boundaries between groups rather than to unite us together as one. Anyone who questions the rightness of what America does is somehow “unpatriotic.” But this is nothing new. In 1917, as the U.S. was entering World War I, those who did not fly their flags from their houses on patriotic holidays were deemed “unAmerican.” German-Americans were ostracized in that same war, labeled as unpatriotic if they did not stop practicing their cultures and speaking their language. In World War II, the same tactic was used against Japanese-Americans, which led to their eventual incarceration. Using labels has long been a way to unite groups of Americans against each other, and thereby dividing the whole.
In the end, “patriot” becomes yet another label we use to define our world view, which cheapens both the word and its meaning.
So I lost at patriotism that Memorial Day back in Ohio. The Marine Corps veteran beat me, if audience reaction is anything to judge. But it wasn’t his words that bothered me; the man is entitled to his opinions, God knows, especially with his service record. It was, rather, the response. The overwhelming acceptance of the community that this is the way that patriotism is, and that they are fine with that. This opinion is much the same throughout other communities all around the nation.
In a way, then, we all lose. We lose when we stop being a thinking Republic. Those who do not wear the uniform need to think about the cost of war, because war affects everyone, whether we realize it or not. And patriots come in all forms: the service member, the first responder, the parent, the philanthropist, the student, the worker, the caretaker, the nurse, the teacher…there is no end to the list, because we all can – and should – play a vital role in the future of our nation.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.
17 Replies to “How I Lost at Patriotism – And How We All Lose”
“My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
But people always seem to forget the second half of the quote.
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Sadly Western societies seem to be divided over which direction is ‘right’
Patriotism is the love of your country, not the love of its politics. To a large degree dissent truly is patriotic in a Republic.
Deep down I think a good majority of service members have a list of people who are worth the ultimate sacrifice to keep free. Family, friends, fellow believers of all faiths, sometimes even kind strangers who influenced a life in passing.
When you are willing to go to bat to keep those people free to live their lives, that is patriotism. Whether as a first responder or service member, that sentiment of patriotism.
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Reblogged this on edgerocks and commented:
This is an outstanding article. Sadly, NFL QB Colin Kaepernick is paying the price for “patriotism.”
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Patriot had taken on that other meaning sometime ago. To question what it means to be a “Patriot” seems to be an affront to many from my observations. I find such black and white definitions and perspectives to be unsatisfactory like you do.
A post that I absolutely agree with. Fantastically said.
There is another stanza to that poem:
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control
Thy liberty in law
This, to me, speaks more of the patriotism we should seek, the acknowledgement that we are flawed, and that when those flaws are exposed, we must try to correct ourselves and in so doing, correct our nation. It even demands that we should seek out those flaws and wrongdoings. It demands that we control ourselves, our thoughts, our emotions, every aspect of our being that we can control, and in so doing, control our nation through the personal self control we all must have. This is largely contrary to the popular liberal progressive narrative that insists that everyone’s flaws must be the result of some outside influence and, as such, you have no responsibility to control either them or yourself. Finally, liberty must be enshrined in law. Therefore, laws that restrict liberty must carefully and and narrowly crafted so as to allow the maximum liberty, if they should even be crafted at all.
I do not believe that patriotism is necessarily bad, but I do believe it is necessary. Without it, one becomes “a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.” (John Stuart Mill)
We are a great nation, however imperfect. We are a great people, however flawed. Part of that greatness comes from the knowledge and acceptance that we are imperfect and flawed. Part of that greatness also comes from the fact that, again, however imperfectly we do it, we address those imperfections and flaws. But we cannot do it be deriding or out right destroying that basis of our country. The idea that some must be silenced so that others may have their way is anathema to everything America stands for. The idea that some must lose their rights so that others may “feel safe” is likewise in opposition to America’s ideals. In like fashion, the idea that patriotism is somehow old fashioned or outdated or unnecessary betrays everything that American patriots have fought and died for since this country was founded.
We need not agree with each other on every aspect of life, but on the subject of patriotism, there should be no disagreement that we owe ourselves our best efforts at self control, the growth of liberty, and the correction of our flaws, and in executing those efforts, become the nation the Founding Fathers, flawed as they were, believed should be in this world.
Powerful words. Thankyou.
What a thoughtful and thought provoking essay. Thank you for the nuanced depth and shades of grey in what is often black and white. I would venture the service, the reverence for people and wrestling with things that test the hearts and minds of many, would make you a patriot. Respect and commitment for nation but not without question, respect for citizens but not without challenge to rise to our better selves. Thank you.
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Angry Staff Officer. Stumbled upon your site researching the 26th Division, having just returned from my own French pilgrimage to the Marne early in Oct. My grandfather fought there in the first US tank corps under Lt. Col. Patton.
It is so entirely difficult to honor the Marine veteran’s words. I went into the woods at Belleau to feel the place. I worked with Marines who fought in Vietnam. When I was introduced at a military pow-wow to a Lakota Marine who fought at Fallujah, I took my hat off before shaking his hand. I cannot express the esteem I have for US Marines. They really are our quintessential warriors. I confess, though, I cannot respect what the Marine at that Memorial Day event said and did to those listening. Yes, yes, yes, he has an absolute and Constitutional right to say what he did.
My last active duty assignment (my best one) was as an AFROTC instructor at an Ivy League university. I’m “just a Cold Warrior” (SAC, USAFE), but the one thing I told my cadets back in 02-06 was: “You are going to leave my class as thinking, ethical officers.” They all went and did their duty – in the air, on the ground, dropping bombs, and kicking in doors – and not a few have told me since that they remembered what I said about being both thoughtful and ethical to make sure they could, in fact, do their duty. Words matter because when you stand in uniform – active or retired – the inherent nature of authority adheres to your whole person in that moment. But I can guarantee you, not everyone in that audience that day you spoke were taken along on the wave of “the Gunny’s” speech. That segment of the listeners were the quiet, thoughtful patriots.
I like your blog. Shall recommend it.
R.B.Breese, Major, USAFR, Ret.
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I’m beginning to notice a decidedly leftist slant with these articles, and it seems that you’re setting up a straw man regarding nationalism posing as patriotism. When I see people being judged ‘Un-American’, it’s not because they question the ‘rightness’ of America, its because they literally slam America as being unworthy. They call America inherently racist. They call America inherently bigoted. They say that America wasn’t built on maximizing personal liberty, but instead was built to enshrine ‘white privilege’. This is sheer hatred of our country on display, every day.
You call nationalism, which I suspect is a pseudonym for conservatism to be divisive. There is nothing more divisive than labeling one class as oppressors and labeling another class as permanent victims. When Kaepernick kneels for the flag and the national anthem, he isn’t protesting police brutality. You can go to a police station to do that. He’s protesting our entire society. Yes that’s Anti American.
I believe that what Daniel Turissini sees as sheer hatred of our country on display is actually hatred of how our country has been manipulated and our freedoms used by the few to the detriment of the many. I used to scoff at the idea of “white privilege” until I began to pay attention to it. America was founded on the idea that everyone should have an equal shot at maximizing personal liberty, but we are a long way from reaching that ideal. One thing we can do to help reach that ideal is to stop using labels like conservative and liberal, left and right, etc. Using these labels keeps us from having to think about the underlying principles of them.
This blog post was painfully accurate. Our society has become divided into patriots and those other scum sucking leaches. You’re either for us or against us. Everything is black or white. We’ve gotten so wrapped up in trying to out-patriot each other, that we’ve lost touch with the meaning of the word patriotism. Patriotism is the love of one’s country. Many of those that are called unpatriotic actually love their country, but are portrayed as unpatriotic by those that don’t agree with how they display that love. Some people show their love of country by flying the flag, and others show their love by trying to make the country better for all. That is the great thing about America, we are free to express our love of country in a way that is meaningful to ourselves. Having to express our love of country in a manner deemed acceptable by others isn’t freedom, it is tyranny.
Mark, we don’t all love our country. We’re not all expressing that love in different ways. When people light a flag on fire, say ‘God damn America’, riot, defecate on police cars, and basically tear down our country at every opportunity, they are NOT simply fellow patriots who express their patriotism in a different way. They ARE unpatriotic. A modicum of decorum is what I and most other Americans expect. I would never go to Great Britain and sit during their national anthem. I would stand respectfully for it. I expect that people who call themselves Americans not crap all over our heritage. You can dismiss me as someone who’s too unsophisticated to understand the authors fine points, but most people agree with me, which is why the NFLs ratings are tanking.
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