My piece "Army, Flag and Cross" was just published by the web edition of Free Inquiry.
My piece "Army, Flag and Cross" was just published by the web edition of Free Inquiry.
"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
In looking at the toxic convergence of Army, Flag and Cross in
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
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.
One is often left speechless when one reads the public pronouncements of high-ranking military personnel, pronouncements more suitable to
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.
Battle Cry holds massive gatherings in stadiums and other large-scale venues all over
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
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.”
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,
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
As a country,
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
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
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
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
As these words were being written, American soldiers in the
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