Monday, October 20, 2014

HEINTZ: Rethinking American patriotism

By ANDY HEINTZ, For What It's Worth | 6/4/2014

I’ve lately been once again mulling over the pluses and minuses of the conventional version of American patriotism.

Like everyone else, I feel obligated to acknowledge the sacrifices made by American troops in past wars. Their willingness to risk their lives to ensure that our nation remains free makes them worthy of the ennobled phrase hero. But — and this is a big but — I remain troubled by how so many newspaper and cable news outlets reliably and pathologically regurgitate the standard narrative that all American wars have been fought to defend our liberty and freedom. The stubborn persistence of this narrative has and continues to limit the parameters of debate in this country. The mind set this narrative evokes in some segments of the U.S. population was hammered home to me many years ago when I was attending Shawnee Mission East High School in my hometown of Prairie Village.

I’ve lately been once again mulling over the pluses and minuses of the conventional version of American patriotism.

Like everyone else, I feel obligated to acknowledge the sacrifices made by American troops in past wars. Their willingness to risk their lives to ensure that our nation remains free makes them worthy of the ennobled phrase hero. But — and this is a big but — I remain troubled by how so many newspaper and cable news outlets reliably and pathologically regurgitate the standard narrative that all American wars have been fought to defend our liberty and freedom. The stubborn persistence of this narrative has and continues to limit the parameters of debate in this country. The mind set this narrative evokes in some segments of the U.S. population was hammered home to me many years ago when I was attending Shawnee Mission East High School in my hometown of Prairie Village.

I was traveling in the backseat of a friend’s car when we drove past some people protesting against either the war in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq (I’m guessing the war in Iraq, since the war in Afghanistan was extremely popular at that time), and my friend yelled some extremely hostile and bullying remarks out the window to this group. At the time, I wasn’t too knowledgeable about politics and I wasn’t about to risk a quarrel with my friend, so I kept my mouth shut.

Still, the visceral anger that poured out of my normally laid-back friend provided me with an early example of how patriotism can quickly morph into nationalism. One reason the debate on the morality of American wars is so muted is because of the soldier-as-a-hero narrative, which by extension, inadvertently leads people to take nationalistic stances out of a sense of loyalty to our men and women in uniform. If a war the U.S. is fighting is immoral then, so the reasoning goes, the soldiers fighting in those wars are committing immoral acts. This doesn’t square well with the soldier-as-a-hero narrative, so such subversive thoughts are typically not whispered aloud.

What this narrative fails to discern is that soldiers are heroes not because of their willingness to participate in morally dubious wars, but because they’re willing to risk their lives to preserve our country’s freedoms. Yet, the respect Americans rightfully give soldiers shouldn’t be blind to the fact that soldiers, like anyone else, are also capable of behaving badly and therefore shouldn’t be placed above scrutiny. A person can be capable of tremendous courage on the battlefield, while displaying less than admirable characteristics in other areas of life. The majority of soldiers are an admirable lot, but every occupation has a few bad seeds. U.S. soldiers deserve our deep respect, not our idolatry.

The soldier-as-a-hero narrative also shouldn’t induce Americans to robotically accept that past wars in Vietnam, Grenada, Iraq, the Dominican Republic and Panama had anything to do with making sure our country remained free. Sure, Iraq had given refuge to terrorists in the past, but the late Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime was never any match for the most powerful army in the world. As for the other countries mentioned, the idea that they posed any threat to American freedom is laughable.

Patriotism can be a beautiful thing that brings people together and gives people purpose, but it can also be used to vaporize dissent and legitimize a culture of constant warfare.

Andy Heintz is a political commentator. He previously was a Herald staff writer, now a sports reporter at the Ottumwa Courier, Ottumwa, Iowa. Read his blog at http://www.orble.com/just-one-mans-vision/ and follow @heintz23 on Twitter.

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