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.