The Fourth of July—the ultimate patriotic holiday—is approaching again. Politicians orate, American Flags proliferate and, even more than usual, many windows on the world are tinted red, white and blue. But an important question remains unasked: Why are patriotism and war so intertwined in U.S. media and politics?
The highest accolades often go to those who died for their country. But when a war is based on deception with horrific results, as became clear during the massive bloodshed in Vietnam, realism and cynicism are apt to undermine credulity. “War’s good business so give your son,” said a Jefferson Airplane song in 1967. “And I’d rather have my country die for me.”
Government leaders often assert that participating in war is the most laudable of patriotic services rendered. And even if the fighters don’t know what they’re fighting for, the pretense from leadership is that they do. When President Lyndon Johnson delivered a speech to U.S. troops at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam, he proclaimed that “you know what you are doing, and you know why you are doing it—and you are doing it.”
Five decades later, long after sending U.S. troops to invade Panama in 1989 and fight the 1991 Gulf War, former President George H.W. Bush tweeted that he was “forever grateful not only to those patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice for our Nation—but also the Gold Star families whose heritage is imbued with their honor and heroism.” Such lofty rhetoric is routine.
Official flattery elevates the warriors and the war, no matter how terrible the consequences. In March 2010, making his first presidential visit to Afghanistan, Barack Obama told the assembled troops at Bagram Air Base that they “represent the virtues and the values that America so desperately needs right now: sacrifice and selflessness, honor and decency.”
From there, Obama went on to a theme of patriotic glory in death: “I’ve been humbled by your sacrifice in the solemn homecoming of flag-draped coffins at Dover, to the headstones in section 60 at Arlington, where the fallen from this war rest in peace alongside the fellow heroes of America’s story.” Implicit in such oratory is the assumption that “America’s story” is most heroic and patriotic on military battlefields.
A notable lack of civic imagination seems to assume that there is no higher calling for patriotism than to kill and be killed. It would be an extremely dubious notion even if U.S. wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq had not been based on deception—underscoring just how destructive the conflation of patriotism and war can be.
From Vietnam to Iraq and beyond, the patriotism of U.S. troops—and their loved ones as well as the general public back home—has been exploited and manipulated by what outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” Whether illuminated by the Pentagon Papers in 1971 or the absence of the proclaimed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction three decades later, the falsehoods provided by the White House, State Department and Pentagon have been lethal forms of bait-and-switch.
Often lured by genuine love of country and eagerness to defend the United States of America, many young people have been drawn into oiling the gears of a war machine—vastly profitable for Pentagon contractors and vastly harmful to human beings trapped in warfare.
Yet, according to top officials in Washington and compliant media, fighting and dying in U.S. wars are the utmost proof of great patriotism.
We’re encouraged to closely associate America’s wars with American patriotism in large part because of elite interest in glorifying militarism as central to U.S. foreign policy. Given the destructiveness of that militarism, a strong argument can be made that true patriotism involves preventing and stopping wars instead of starting and continuing them.
If such patriotism can ever prevail, the Fourth of July will truly be a holiday to celebrate.