(@1 AM – promoted by On The Bus)
I wanted to try and generate some discussion on a subject that will continue to resonate regardless of who wins in November: the pathological coupling between fundamentalism, flag worship, and what can be called, for lack of a better term, “warrior worship.” Join me below the fold, won’t you?
“When Fascism arrives it will be wrapped in a Flag and carrying a Bible.”
It was the first word that came to mind when I saw the bumper sticker. We Americans are a nation of bumper-sticker junkies: they tell you everything you need to know about us, from where we take our vacations, to our politics, to what brand of beer we drink. This particular bumper sticker was on a seemingly ordinary vehicle that was several feet in front of me, grinding along slowly in rush-hour traffic. I had plenty of time to study the content of the thing, and to think about what the thing meant.
It was a ribbon, yet another variant on the ubiquitous American “yellow ribbon.” Across the front, on a field of yellow, were the words “Support Our Troops.” The ribbon looped back and showed a field of white stars on a blue background, evoking the American flag. The cleverest part of the ribbon was the last section, hanging below the “Support Our Troops” slogan. It was red and white, with a stripe, intended to carry forward the American flag theme. But there was a subtle touch on this section of the ribbon, a suggestion of a white sunburst that joined with the vertical white stripe and overlaid it with a horizontal white stripe. It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to realize this was intended to be a subtle evocation of the Christian Cross.
There it was, encapsulated, complete, uncut, pure: the symbolic essence of an America that has drifted far from civilization, an American that has grown very, very strange.
In looking at the toxic convergence of Army, Flag and Cross in America, I want to parse the words on that deeply evocative bumper sticker – SUPPORT OUR TROOPS – and confront the question: what does it mean to “support our troops”? And have we reached a point where the idea itself should finally be called into question?
The America symbolized by that bumper sticker is an America that has left behind the world inhabited by rational nation-states and slipped off into a world of sentimental Romanticism. Let me take a moment to explain what I mean by “Romanticism” in this context, because it is critical to an understanding of what has happened to America.
Romanticism can be understood as a worldview that privileges strong emotion, emotions such as pride, horror and awe. When one hears the ominous, drum-beating music that opens every American news broadcast today, it is easy to see that the purpose is to scream “War! Terror! Fear! Pride! Revenge!” over and over and over again. The purpose of all this is to derange the viewer’s senses and to conflate these primitive emotions with a feeling of patriotism. Additionally, Romanticism privileges the individual imagination as the single, unshakeable source of Truth, an aspect that plays right into the American insistence on a “personal relationship with God” rather than traditional hierarchical religious practices. As Baudelaire pointed out when speaking of Romanticism, it is not the truth of the thing in question that is important, but rather the overwhelming and exciting personal emotions that the thing inspires. Such is very much the case with America’s fetishistic Romanticism. Expanding the concept to the political level, America’s Romantic nationalism takes as its starting point the “white man’s burden” and American’s unique world-historical mission to “bring” or “give” democracy to the benighted lesser peoples of the world.
We need to look closely at that ribbon I saw on the back of that car, we need to understand the symbolism of it, and above all, we need to understand how the Romantic sentimentalism evoked by that very dangerous ribbon plays out in the real world.
America is a country besotted with religion. It always has been, and many days I fear that it always will be. We must never forget that America’s Puritan ancestors were driven from the countries of Europe because they were religious lunatics whose extremism made them beyond the pale of acceptable European behavior. Considering that this was an era when Europe was knee-deep in blood from its many religious wars, and witches were being routinely hanged and burned for consorting with the Devil, the idea that a group could be “too extreme” was speaks volumes. In America, the Devil has always been real. He has horns and a pitchfork, and he walks up and down the broad back of the American heartland and crouches at moonlit crossroads, tempting the unwary to bet their souls on a roll of the dice. America has a long history of Romantic religious enthusiasms, revivals and fundamentalist upsurges. The forward march of civilization has done nothing to dampen this, and America in the 21st century stands proudly in opposition to the increasing secularism of the civilized world.
One is often left speechless when one reads the public pronouncements of high-ranking military personnel, pronouncements more suitable to Europe at the time of the Crusades than to a developed country in the opening years of the new millennium. For example, we have the infamous “Christian Soldier,” General William G. Boykin, strutting and thumping his chest as he gives speeches (in full dress uniform, it should be noted) to gatherings of hard-right religious groups, loudly proclaiming, “We, in the Army of God, in the Kingdom of God, have been raised for such a time as this!” General Peter Pace, a seemingly sensible and levelheaded Marine who rose to become head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once defended the leadership of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, stating, “He leads in a way that the good Lord tells him is best for our country.” This increasingly brazen need on the part of our top military leaders to publicly “witness for faith” is alarming, to say the least. I would not be at all surprised if the day comes when we get to witness, live on TV, a battlefield general suddenly spouting fluent Babylonian and falling into a shuddering heap on the ground before rising, transfigured, and leading his troops into holy battle against the infidels.
Is this alarming? Indeed it is, but not nearly as alarming as the well-organized and brilliantly executed strategy of breeding up the next generation of religious-lunatic military personnel starting right down in the pre-teen years. America is experiencing an explosion of organizations that bear a disturbing resemblance to the sort of “youth on the march” organizations that one saw so often in the last century. We have organizations such as the Battle Cry Christian youth movement, a movement – in the very real sense of that word – totally committed to the feverish glorification of military virtues and the manly pursuit of holy war.
Battle Cry holds massive gatherings in stadiums and other large-scale venues all over America. The rallies are high-energy, high-concept, and high-tech, with the frenetic musical beat of a shoot-em-up video game and live “action figures” of Navy SEALs and other military paragons charging on stage, screaming to the crowd that they are proud “Christian warriors,” and acting out real-life scenes from “the war against Islamic Fascism” as they brief the stadium full of kids on their heroic future as part of the “battle plan for Jesus.” These disturbing antics are followed by the reading of an endorsement of Battle Cry by George W. Bush, a moment that sends the thousands of overwrought young people into paroxysms of testifying, swooning, weeping and general adolescent hysteria. This combination of testosterone-laden posturing and the pairing of military and Christian symbolism is a brilliant recruiting tool for the apocalyptic “long war” that so many on the Religious Right crave. One hopes that those kids wake up the next day feeling the way many kids feel the day after a night of binge-drinking and slam-dancing: beat-up, sheepish, and resolved never to engage in that particular form of idiocy again. One suspects not; most of these kids have never felt such overwhelming emotional and physical excitement in their entire lives – and they are going to want more.
Coupled with the resurgence of a broad-shouldered, muscular Christianity is a fetishistic new obsession with the Stars and Stripes as a quasi-religious object. There has always been a certain sentimental attachment to the flag as such in American culture (phrases like “Old Glory” and songs like “She’s a Grand Old Flag” are not recent inventions), but since 9/11 the defense of the flag as a physical object has become increasingly strident and irrational. Everywhere one turns in America, the iconography of The Flag is thrust into one’s face in a way that I have never before seen in my lifetime. The most disturbing aspect of this revitalized Flag-worship is the premise that the flag itself may not be burned or otherwise “desecrated.” Perhaps alone among the nations of the world, America has decided that the actual, physical flag – rather than the ideas it represents – must be protected from the ravages of the unworthy and kept physically pure.
Orrin Hatch, on the floor of the US Senate, made the statement that passing an amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting flag burning was “the most important thing the Senate could be doing.” He made this outlandish claim at a time when the wheels were starting to fall off the war in Iraq, the resurgent Taliban were beginning to give the lie to the illusion of “victory” in Afghanistan, gas prices were soaring, and forty-five million American citizens were without any health insurance. The fact that no one laughed aloud at the idea that preventing the flag from being burned was the Senate’s most important order of business is alarming. Around the same time, President Bush proclaimed, “at this hour, a new generation of Americans is defending our flag and our freedom in the first war of this century.” Again, we have this ominous conflation of the flag with the concept of freedom, and one seems to be witnessing the sort of fetishistic relationship more suitable for Napoleon reviewing the colors of the Grande Armée than an American President offering his rationale for the continuing “war on terror.”
Flag-worship in America has revealed a deep well of Romantic, magical thinking, imbuing an object in the physical world with some sort of ineffable magical gris-gris. I will state it plainly: this fetishistic behavior is a form of emotional voodoo. Flags are not worshipped in a free, democratic state.
Free democracies also do not worship their armies. They think of their national armies as necessary evils, when they think about them at all. For over two hundred years, America kept faith with George Washington’s caution that “overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty.” Even at the height of the Cold War, the military was never glamorized the way it is now. It is impossible to find anything like the current Army-worship anywhere in American history; indeed, to find an equivalent in the 20th century, one is forced to turn to totalitarian societies (Germany, the USSR, North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq). The title of a new “ultimate fighting” television program that premiered in 2007 summed up the new order of things: “Warrior Nation.” This is how modern America sees itself: as the new Sparta. And in the new Sparta, refusal to unconditionally worship the warrior class is one of the few taboos that must never be violated.
Unlike the countries of the Western world, whose citizens have come (through centuries of bleeding) to view war as a horrible aberration and a failure of rational solidarity, America embraces the prospect of spending years, decades, centuries in the righteous work of fighting the long war to “rid the world of evil”. The “warrior” is fetishized and lifted up to a place beyond any possibility of criticism by the “or else!” implicit in the mantra, “Support the Troops.” One imagines grainy newsreel footage of Hitler “blessing the colors”; the mind conjures up old television footage of the massive militarized May Day love fests in Red Square; and we hear the echoes of the manic triumphalism of the military parades put on by every tin pot dictator in the Third World. One is brought up short by the realization: now it is America’s turn.
As a country, America has begun to worship the professional military class, and more ominously, American has begun to glorify military ideals: testosterone-rich, sentimental, unambiguous, lacking in any sense of nuance, utterly committed to “the mission,” the unending project to “civilize” the world. The unspoken demand is that the civilian population must now embrace these same values, and glorify these same things. One sees a way of thinking in which military priorities as such become the top priorities of the nation as a whole, and woe betide anyone who is foolish enough to challenge the foundations of this new national religion.
One important facet of this Army-worship reveals it for the sentimental and Romantic thing that it is: Americans love their military but they overwhelming refuse to serve in it, and they overwhelmingly refuse to let their kids get lured into serving in it. Yet these “latté liberal” suburban parents who work so hard to make sure little Melissa and Cody don’t get any crazy ideas about “joining up” are the first to chant the tribal mantra: “Condemn the war but not the warrior.” How very problematic this new mantra is, once one examines it, as if one could actually decouple the policy from those who voluntarily implement the policy. The two are coupled, pathologically coupled, and will always be so.
The question that almost no one in America seems willing to ask is: at what point in our history did blind obedience to bad orders become a heroic virtue? Does it really make sense to lionize people for doing something that our rational minds tell us is an extremely bad idea? If one opposes the war, how can one support the troops and still claim to be thinking rationally? The belief that one can do so has the stench of bad faith. The fact of the matter is that the people at the top giving the orders are complicit, but the people who are actually pulling the triggers share in that complicity. No one is innocent, everyone owns their own decisions.
The mental gymnastics that Americans go through in order to give “the warriors” an easy out for their actions tend to fall into two categories: “blame the decision-makers, not the warriors,” and “they only enlisted for economic reasons.” These rationales are alibis, and not particularly good alibis at that.
The first alibi is easily disposed of. Principle I of the Nuremberg Tribunal (of which the United States is a signatory) makes it clear that “any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment.” And lest anyone complain that this is too vague, Principle IV gives us all the clarification we need: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” And let us be clear: one always has to make clear moral choices. It’s not very pretty, and no one likes to talk about it, but there it is. There are moments, as Camus reminds us, “when everything becomes clear, when every action constitutes a commitment, when every choice has a price.” This is one of those moments, and to pretend that the people pulling the trigger are not, in a very real sense, “decision-makers,” is both naïve and absurd. Army Lieutenant Ehrin Watada in the US and the refuseniks in Israel understand that, even at the lowest rungs in the chain of command, refusal to say “no” is tantamount to complicity.
The second alibi is one that is popular among many Americans, including many Americans who self-identify as “leftists.” In November 2006, the New York Times analyzed the demographic patterns of military recruits and discovered that, in fact, they are slightly better off in terms of education, neighborhood, family income and job prospects than the surrounding population as a whole. Are some of the American soldiers in Iraq there for economic reasons? Sure, but not very many. Did some of them sign up for the chance to go over and blow away some “rag-heads”? Of course; armies throughout history have always attracted their share of sociopaths. But after removing these two small groups from the list, we are left with the vast majority who went, voluntarily and for their own reasons. They made a moral decision. They made a choice. Having made their free choice, are they somehow magically immune from all blame?
They are immune because they are granted immunity from blame by the sentiment of the American people. They are given the alibi of the “pure warrior” because the donning of the uniform has become equivalent to the donning of priestly vestments in an earlier age. The “warrior” is immediately sanctified, justified, raised up beyond all criticism from us lesser mortals who lack the moral fiber to wear the vestments. The American people, living in the midst of this enormous superstructure of myth and alibi, are incapable of understanding that they have armored themselves against evil by manufacturing not the new Sparta, but rather a dystopian, sentimental dreamland.
In America, it appears that the more pathological the coupling between Army, Flag and Cross, the greater need there is to honor “the warrior.” We should be clear on the fact that this is not necessarily something new. This way of thinking was never more clearly expressed than by Secretary of War Elihu Root, who in 1899 declared, “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”
As these words were being written, American soldiers in the Philippines were in the early stages of a near-genocidal rampage that would kill more than 600,000 Filipinos. Not new, this warrior-love, but rampant now, and metastasizing.
The American mythos today is saturated with the Holy Trinity of God, the flag and the armed forces. All are glorified and sanctified in a manner that is overtly sentimental, Romantic and irrational. These three pillars of American society support an invigorated sense of Manifest Destiny, a wonderful feeling of exceptional purpose that was lost after the collapse of Soviet communism. Americans are excited again: standing tall, feeling the pride, and above all, “on the march.” This toxic mix of Army-worship, Flag-worship and God-worship has erupted in a nation where every hope and fear can be rendered down to a slogan on one of the many variations on the yellow ribbon. The irony of it all is that the yellow ribbon was originally a symbol of the grinding, endless sense of victimhood that Americans felt during the Iran hostage crisis. Americans everywhere showed the yellow ribbon because there was quite literally nothing else they could do about the situation except sit there and take it. For those of us who live in America – and for the rest of the world as well – an understanding of this dangerous liaison between rampant militarism and the sanctified yellow fetish of the angry victim is critically important. This yellow shroud – and make no mistake, it is a shroud and possibly even a death shroud – is a voodoo fetish designed to buck up the courage of a people who have, in a few short years, devolved into a nation of frantic, ribbon-worshipping victims.