Guest Post: The Flag, the Military, and Patriotism

Today’s guest post comes from Major John Q. Bolton. Maj. Bolton is an officer deployed to Afghanistan. He holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the United States Military Academy, an MBA from American Military University, and a Master of Military Arts and Sciences from the Command and General Staff College. An Army Aviator (AH-64D/E), his assignments include Fort Riley, KS with multiple deployments to OIF and OEF. This article represents his personal views, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, nor the U.S. government

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. – Samuel Johnson

The nation’s massive – and growing – Civil-Military Divide has been on ugly display for the past week. The cause that brought it into sharp, harsh focus wasn’t the massive, nearly unquestioned defense spending bill, nor the unending conflict in Afghanistan (to say nothing of our wars in six other countries). Rather, it was the peaceful, albeit controversial act of athletes kneeling during the National Anthem. I won’t focus on protester’s cause or rationale, nor the indignation aroused in those who oppose. I do however, take issue with the explicit linking of military servicemembers and symbols as somehow disrespected, abused, or debased by these protests. Its a false equivalence that does damage to the military and the nation.

No matter how noble or supportive of the military those making this linkage are, they do disrespect servicemembers when they reduce them to stereotyped symbols to be used in nationalistic, political battles. Once again, the memes are flying juxtaposing “millionaire athletes” (as if they hadn’t worked hard to earn their pay) with dead Soldiers with specious text like, “He died standing and so should you,” or “The real heroes are in Afghanistan,” as if NFL players had ever compared themselves to Soldiers.

The use of the dead is particularly sordid and stupid. They are often presented as a corpse or perhaps a picture of a casket without a shred of context. These young men or women, who we must assume died overseas in combat, had a life, a story, a future, and probably a family. Yet they’ve been reduced to nothing more than a poster-child for latent anger at a protest movement that only has weight by reaction itself. With less than 3% of the population having served or currently serving, it is even more weightless when I see something like this, shared by someone who likely has not served, nor has a family member who served. I’m often shocked by the nuance veterans will see in this situation, a nuance completely overlooked by those using veterans. It’s what Washington Post columnist Alex Nowrasteh calls “Patriotic Correctness.” A less kind definition is chicken hawk. The meme’d men and women have simply become a tool for the originator to show his anger with a convenient symbol, rather than rational thought. By using images – almost surely without consent – we are shaming memories. Doing so makes service less weighty; it becomes a symbol, an abstraction used for our convenience, not to honor their sacrifice.

In a nation where the people actually had a relationship with their military, such obtuse displays wouldn’t be held up as paragons of third-party virtue, they’d be mocked for the shameless appropriation they are. Just a generation ago, the American people understood their military wasn’t a faultless bastion of American virtue; it was an honorable, if fallible institution much the same as churches, courts, and medicine–it wasn’t an abstraction, it was a real thing, worthy of respect and the occasional mocking. It’s an unhealthy pathological consequence of the AVF that we can longer treat the military the same.

Transposing the military from disassociated servants to patriotic pin-ups in order to generate nationalistic fervor is not only insipid, it’s dangerous and un-American. The military serves no political party, nor ideology; it is commanded by the President through the Secretary of Defense with the consent of Congress; its members are as varied as the nation it serves. No party or faction has a unilateral claim to patriotism, and certainly not to “ownership” of the country. America is an idealistic nation, founded on Western, liberal (small L) principles. Regardless of how often we have failed to live up to these values, they should our national culture more so than race, creed, or party. While France is for the French and China for the Chinese, America is for the free. When we compete in terms of patriotism, everyone loses. No one may be more American than anyone else, because the definition of American is not fixed in base terms or simple adherence.

Moreover, the military doesn’t have a lock on patriotism. Though service members may indeed be patriotic, service and love of country come in many forms. Military service is just one occupant in the pantheon of national service. It is not necessarily better or more noble than the Peace Corps, Public Health Service, or Merchant Marine. In fact, the material benefits may often be better in the military than other forms of service; disregarding the sacrifices born by others or dismissing them as “just civilians” is mil-splaining at its worst. Only in a police state, where the military and state power are paramount, do those instruments have a lock on “the flag.”

Our national flag and anthem are just that: national. They exist above faction (there is no military flag, though each service has their own). I fail to see the link between the military, especially casualties, and not honoring the national anthem. Perhaps at an official function like a funeral, swearing-in, etc. But public sports are hardly such events; they are not martial ceremonies or only mimic them to the extent the public doesn’t understand its military. When did football stadiums of all places become sacrosanct venues of patriotic virtue? Why is a token display by a player more worthwhile than the surely thousands of fans not standing (and who likely don’t know the words)? Revelations about the Pentagon’s “paid patriotism” since 9/11 pile irony on top of this situation.

Patriotism is an intensely personal issue; it is the unique, changing, and internal feeling you have toward your country, good and bad, proud and ashamed, supportive or disapproving. Patriotism lives in the heart of the individual, public displays can be good and righteous, but can quickly become pro-forma at best or authoritatively evil at worst.

Lastly, associating any protest, but especially the Kapenrick-esque, which has made its goals and points explicitly clear whether you agree or not, with disrespect of the flag, nation, military, etc. is just mistaking one form of patriotism for another. Doing so is just a way of disregarding those with whom you disagree with the cleansing veneer of patriotism. That type of ignorance and malice toward our fellow citizens is distinctly un-American, no matter how many anthems or flags are involved. We should not allow ‘Patriot’ to become “yet another label we use to define our world view, which cheapens both the word and its meaning.”

Faith and pride in one’s country is a noble thing, but it can quickly make a pernicious turn toward, “love my country right or wrong”– a sentiment that is superficially understandable but disastrous in action. We should applaud those who stand up against injustice or policy errors, especially those who do so at cost to themselves. Doing so says more about belief in America’s potential, the potential to right wrongs and do well by the people than feckless, questioning support of the state. Such an act is intrinsically patriotic no matter how unpopular.

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About the Editor: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer 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.

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