Offered by DA
Ok kulturCritics, let’s take a little time for some free-associative thinking on one of my favorite topics, America’s historical and ongoing (apparently with no end in sight either) fascination with all things war. I’d like to set aside for this discussion all the more obvious components that drive us: the obvious economic benefits to establishing what amounts to an entire global economic sector based on blowing things up so that they can be built right back up again and the obvious benefit of establishing what amounts to the largest unemployment service the nation’s ever known, with the added benefit of serving as an indoctrination service (USA! USA! USA!) for its many inductees. Or the obvious need for a suitably powerful enforcement arm to police and enforce the globe on behalf of the capitalist leviathan which it serves in the name of our new secular religion PROFITS (angelic harp chords here) for the few. No, these are the all too easily and widely recognized reasons why War Inc. was established by our wealthy overlords in the first place and are blindingly obvious to all but the most obtuse (read: patriotic) among us. What I’d like to consider today, and what has always baffled me for that matter, is why War Inc. in all of its current incarnations (DoD (and its many private sector clones), CIA, NSA, FBI, ATF, IRS, and all their many foreign counterparts) holds such a spell over the very people it is now quite openly attacking at every turn, especially when you consider that the ascendant political mantra in this country (first by the right, now by the left as well) has long been that big government is universally evil. And for those who don’t know my history already, I’m retired USAF enlisted myself, who at one time at least viewed the military and its efforts as a necessary evil. I’m not sure now I wasn’t deluded all along, but one thing’s for sure, nothing the US is doing militarily now can <i>even possibly</i> be construed as “national defense” by any sane, rational adult (hell, we even <i>created</i> a department, DHS, that supposedly does that); and it’s remarkable to me at least that so many of my fellow countryman can by that definition no longer be considered sane or rational, at least with regards to matters military, broadly defined.
So why did I join in the first place all those years ago? Yep, you’ve got it, almost purely for economic reasons, just as most of my compadres at the time did (and continue to do today) as well. Yeah there was the FTA (Fun, Travel, Adventure) factor as well, and that’s still a major selling point for prospective inductees, but as most vets find out all to soon enough, the fun factor is seriously overstated, the travel (a factor which has increased exponentially as the military has simultaneously downsized and increased its world-wide commitments) begins to wear on you after a while, and the adventure more often than not is not the kind you want to have. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed the first ten years or so of my career. The FTA really is just that when you’re twenty-something and have nothing better to do. The money, although not great, ain’t half bad either, especially if you came from an economically disadvantaged background in the first place. All facts that I sensed were still true, albeit diminished somewhat, for the youth coming in behind me as I hit retirement age ten years back. But once again, these are all rather obvious factors for why the inductees themselves join the military and they bleed over into the reasons why our capitalist masters set up this whole system in the first place. In that sense, it’s just a symbiotic relationship. They need to keep employment at a tolerable level by whatever means necessary and the poor and disadvantaged need an income source. They need an enforcement arm to maintain global hegemony of Capitalism Inc., and we need…? What? To feel that we’re being patriotic in the face of some sort of existential threat to baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet? Think wearing military uniforms is just too cool to possibly resist? Just plain like killing and destroying shit and are now totally inoculated to the effects of violence by TV and video games, especially when military killing is now almost always electronic and impersonal as well? Just don’t give a damn about anything anymore and are searching desperately for any kind of thrill to make us feel alive again? That’s the meat of the question right there I think. What makes us continue to blindly support a system that is so obviously serving almost everyone involved so badly? Or as the old 60’s saying goes, “What if they threw a war and nobody came?”
Since addressing all of that in detail could turn into the proverbial “science project,” let’s focus on the first and likely the meatiest: patriotism. Admonitions about patriotism being the last refuge of fools and scoundrels (one with which I totally agree) notwithstanding, patriotism always boils down to two crucial factors to my mind. One is a religious, which is to say blind, belief in a cause, and the second is tribalism carried out on the national level. Or said another way, it’s a religious belief in the “tribe” of the US nation state. A definition that I doubt that would stir up too much controversy even among any “true patriots” who might hear it, if they would even bother to give it that much thought (introspective thought not exactly being a hallmark of religious zealots, no matter their stripe). And thus the popular saying “USA, love it or leave it,” which so popular during the Vietnam era. Setting aside any further discussion of religion for a moment (and you thought I was going THERE again, didn’t you?), the concept of tribalism has been examined fairly extensively in academic and talking head circles of late as well, and is usually found wanting for the most part, mostly simply because it’s pretty much by definition parochial and limiting in its world view. My main critique of tribalism in general is that it’s a failure to think bigger and more inclusively at whatever level it comes into play. Tribalism has obvious negative connotations for most Americans through its association with Native Americans, née Indians, but tribes are with us everywhere still. From the gangs of any major city, to the sports teams associated with high schools and colleges, to many of the professional associations we form (especially local legal and law and order), but even extending to inter-corporate departmental and/or functional divisions, and certainly to our national war making institutions; the military, the (increasingly domestic) spy organizations (CIA and NSA), and the major law enforcement arms (FBI, ATF, DHS, INS, and now with the institution of ObamaCare, the IRS). All of which are ultimately subsumed by the biggie, and one which increasingly claims global hegemony/dominance, the US federal government, aka, our good ol’ US of A! And as any seasoned bureaucratic infighter can tell you without a trace of irony, tribalism is pretty much synonymous with conflict at whatever level it’s practiced.
And so it is that I define patriotism as a near or complete religious belief in tribalistic nationalism. In short us and them. Perhaps best put to music by this classic video, which among other things put the name Dick Parry on the rock and roll map for his inspired Sax solo.
Not one that I imagine is too flattering at all, but which I also quite surprisingly (to me at least) would not expect to receive much push back from its many believers, at least the ones I know. Which is all well and fine I think, but what, in the end, is the result of all this so-called patriotic fervor with which we now find ourselves in the throes of? And is it all truly patriotism in the first place, or is it all some sort of misguided notion of patriotic responsibility that’s been sold to us through the overarching and overwhelming magic of the electronic hologram? Hmmm… good questions me thinks.
So, just exactly when did this current notion of patriotism begin the first place? Certainly hard to say for sure, but WWII (aka, “The Big One”) might be a good place to start. I know, I know, that’s being blindly and naively non-academic, but to tell you the truth, I think that’s as far as our cultural memory goes these days, and even that is rapidly vanishing as we speak. It was during that conflict that our cultural adrenal glands virtually wore out the concept, and which to my mind, we continue the attempt to wear them out, albeit with greatly diminished effect, to this very day. It was patriotism that allowed is to make the sacrifices to win the war against “naked aggression” then, even as we were later admonished so stupidly to “go shopping” to win it later. In the end, to interpret and condense history more than a little bit, patriotism was morphed into little more than a reinterpretation of our vanquished enemies philosophies – Fascism and Nazism – as the post war Red Scare, which in turn quickly provided us with first Korea, and then Vietnam, under the auspices of the newly minted Domino Theory, all too soon enough. In short, patriotism took on the dominant trait of its tribalistic aspect – fear/hate of the other. Equally religious as well? You bet.
But as time wore on, we became war weary and decidedly less religious. As even the Kennedy’s, Johnson, and King couldn’t convince us, the old guard embodied by Nixon first triumphed, and then crashed in a historical blaze of glory with the twin humiliations of Nixon’s Watergate and Vietnam. We were war weary, stoned out of our minds, and believers in nothing at all in the mid-70s when I joined up, so much so that not even a true believer like Carter could pull us out of our rut. We were just plain tired of our own bullshit and not willing to listen to it anymore.
Enter our Savior. “Only in America” is certainly an apt enough title on the face of it (even as it had already been done so well so recently with our recently vanquished enemies) to what happened next. A career actor and thus, professional purveyor of bullshit (Hitler, anyone?), did what he did best, and spread his bullshit all around to resounding acclaim. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of all his morning in America feel good shit, our existential enemy of yesterday proved too smart to succumb to the temptation of world-wide military dominance and simply (and smartly) folded its hand, and the good ol’ US of A found itself in a decidedly uncomfortable situation: a dominant military hegemonic power in control of a world which apparently had no threats. Hmm… might be time to invent some.
In the meantime and in the aftermath, our USA tribe/team experimented with the idea of “small wars.” Wars that were winnable in the short term (in political terms at least), and thus politically salable. Wars that risked only a small number of “professional cadre” (a side benefit of post-Vietnam disaffection and the end of the draft), in the effort to win “hearts and minds” to the cause of “freedom,” aka corporate capitalism. In spite of many initial misfires throughout the 80’s, The Reaganista’s seemed to perfect the technique for future generations. Our good friend patriotism was ascendant again. Good enough for two elections of one president and a rubber stamp election of his vice.
It’s there that our narrative gets a little conflicted. Just as “Bush the Greater” seemed at the top of his powers post Gulf War I, a “patsy war” in retrospect if there ever was one, Americans (aka, Baby Boomers) decided that all of that patriotic bullshit was just so “last century,” and decided to invest in themselves. Which they did. Exponentially. In houses, in stocks, in technology, in bullshit. In anything and everything! And that old bugaboo war was now a thing of the past. Hadn’t you heard? We were the biggest, baddest motherfuckers that ever lived, and who could possibly doubt it! Little did we know then, but the wheels were already turning. War was just too damn profitable to let it go to waste, and our old friend patriotism would be gussied up in some up to date stylings and trotted out once again in service of the cause. The era of the Shock Doctrine and an enemy under every bed writ VERY large was about to begin.
And here we stand in 2013, victims of a “Democratic Reagan” in first Clinton and then Obama (both rubber stamped for two terms), and a piss poor conservative version in Bush the Lesser (actually Cheney the Greater) interspersed as well, not to mention an electronic media hologram the likes of which we’ve never seen. The term “perpetual war” was finally embraced, as it was now being waged on a concept – terrorism – that could conveniently be applied to virtually anyone or anything (The War on Drugs, The War on Poverty, hell, the War on Humanity). And just what, indeed, are we to make of that now ubiquitous hologram in the first place? I must admit, at this late stage of my life, I simply don’t know anymore. Yes, I must admit, I, your DA, simply doesn’t know what to make of current events anymore. Join the club. If you’re not already a member, rest assured, you soon will be.
Question: Patriotism, assuming we are to continue to embrace it, just what exactly has it and will it reliably continue to bring us? And do we really need it anymore anyway (indeed, have we <i>ever</i> needed it)? Has patriotism itself become an idea that should be retired to the dustbin of history? I would submit that as a concept it’s been so polluted and obfuscated by hidden meanings and insinuations (the word liberal anyone?), and perhaps more importantly, linked to warfare and the warrior mentality, that we should just retire it altogether. Watching the now ubiquitous and obscene military and flag displays before our mega sporting events, bringing to mind nothing as much as Hitler’s Nazism or Stalin’s Communism themselves, who can possibly doubt it? But that, alas, is for future generations to decide.
Another take on patriotism by a rock and roll hall of famer, who in spite of his best intentions misses the mark with this one I think. In my view at least, the solution to raging patriotism on the right is not to try to wrestle it back into the hands of the left. Setting aside the polluted meaning of the word itself, it’s a battle that simply can never be won and sullies the reputation of everyone who gets involved with it. Becoming the truest of the true believers in such a dated and parochial concept is simply not a goal that anyone should ever aspire to. We’ve got bigger problems to deal with these days.
Thanks for listening,