May 7, 1945 – May 7, 2011: Patriotism – its Decline and Fall – and Opportunity for Rebirth

Fort De Soto

May 7, 1945 was a special day.

World War II ended in Europe on May 7, 1945 when German emissaries met with General Dwight Eisenhower at his schoolhouse headquarters in Reims, France. The New York Times headlines announced to an anxious world that on this day, Germany surrendered unconditionally. Thus, the ‘first leg” of the war to end all wars was completed.

May 7, 1945 was also a special day for me. It was my 14th birthday. And in Superior, Wisconsin, far from the quieted guns of the European battlefields we too joined in the celebration. Optimism and hope returned to the earth. Patriotism and pride filled our hearts.

But the war to end all wars did not end the wars; in fact, over the years, there has hardly been a pause. In 1954 I and many of my classmates were ushered into uniform for a “mini“ police action with North Korea. A few years later, there was Vietnam. Historian Geoffrey Perret was right when, in 1989, he wrote we are A Country Made By War.

In those earlier times, it was Congress that declared war; now the battles and the death of our young are merely funded by Congress – undeclared wars have become working tools of our Presidents. I don’t know why Congress gave up this important protection for us, but it did. Was it pressure from the military-industrial complex to keep the war machine build-up that eats away half of our budget going?

Of course, we don’t call them wars today. They are “military operations:“ Operation Eagle Claw, Operation Urgent Fury, Operation Nimble Archer, Operation Earnest Will, Operation Prime Chance, Operation Praying Mantis, Operation Just Cause, Operation Provide Comfort, etc. You get the picture. Wikipedia has the list: “Timeline of United States military operations.” It’s up-to-date through 2014, including about a dozen “military operations” since 2010.

In those earlier times, in World War II, the army was not a volunteer army, there was the draft and mandatory service by all able-bodied young men. Mandatory service brought with it patriotism – the understanding, though painful and frightening, that we are all involved. Our lives, our country, were at stake. We all had an interest in getting it right. That’s Patriotism – setting aside our differences and working together to solve our problems. And when we didn’t think war was right, as many did after Korea and during Vietnam, it brought out the war protesters among us. That, too, was an expression of patriotism – working together in a democratic way to solve our problems.

A military draft also fit the idea of the framers of the Constitution – the militia was to be a militia of citizens who picked up their arms to defend our country when it was threatened. Like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome. The idea was wired in the minds of our founders.

And during World War II, those too old or too young or too unhealthy to go to war pitched in and sacrificed. There were no new cars built every year. Car production stopped. Tanks rolled off the assembly lines. $25 war bonds to pay for the war were financed by thousands of payroll deductions – from wages that on a good week probably were $15 dollars. That’s what my mother earned. Top income tax brackets jumped to 95%. There were ration stamps for food and gas. None of that made anyone particularly happy, but we sucked it up – we all pitched in with pride. Patriotism.

When the switch went from wars to “military operations” Patriotism became the first casualty.

Today, we have a volunteer army. We fight the “military operations” without any sacrifice at all except from the “volunteers.“ No mandatory military service. No food rationing. No gas rationing. No hiccup in buying all the electronic toys that have become a necessity. We don’t finance the “military operations“ by higher taxes, or by war bonds that we each buy with pride. Or by any other sacrifice. In fact, the Tea Party Patriots revolt at the idea. Their idea – get off my back and cut my taxes. And with their revolt, Patriotism remains the real casualty.

So war has become more distant, separated from our daily lives. The carnage of war is easier ignored by those of us who don’t volunteer for service. We bomb impersonally from high altitudes. We express little concern about the death of the civilians that get in the way of our “precision” bombs and rockets. “Collateral damage.” Collateral damage is a word frame. A propaganda picture inserted into our minds. It’s not so bad. It’s not us. Its “collateral” – someplace and someone else. Too bad. Sorry.

We are desensitized to the news. The word frames we picture in our minds – volunteer fighters, high level bombs, collateral damage – separate us from the personal cost of war, from the emotions, fears, and experience of war.

We don’t buy war bonds, we let the Chinese finance our “military operations” and unrestricted life style, a life style whose “footprint” would take the resources of three globes if all people on earth were able to keep up with our use and abuse of the earth’s resources. And with that lack of investment of ourselves disappears the true test of Patriotism – getting involved, pitching in to make a difference. The undeclared wars- the “military operations”- go on and on.

The Pentagon budget, the budget for our war machine, for 2012 starts at a measly $719 billion. We cut out headstart for our youngsters, safety inspections and environmental protection, both essential for our food and water, and investment in education for job preparation. But our stockpile of “weapons that never die“ grows. Although those we have elected to speak for us apparently no longer listen, polls indicate that Americans – the silent Americans – would like the Defense Budget reduced by at least $190 Billion.

Of course, the well-oiled war machine “creates jobs“ – we employee people financed by Chinese bonds to build weapons we do not need. We employ private contractors – security personnel they are called – like Blackwater. I am told that the annual “taxpayer cost” of this civilian army force is $450,000 for each security person. Many of us see the “contractors” not as accountable or necessary security forces but hired guns of “war-profiteers” – employees of major political contributors whose companies can now make unlimited political contributions and whom we have licensed to kill. To kill without the accountability we have a right to expect. Go back into history – private armies – was this not the way of the medieval kings? Are we repeating the sins of the Middle Ages, when the kings and knights and lords – the financial “elite” – ruled?

But, we had a revolt about a year ago. The Tea Party Patriots touched a sensitive vein within many of us and sprang to action. Author Naomi Wolf, author of a challenging book, End of America, thinks the Tea Party movement could be a worthy step in the regeneration of Patriotism in America.

But is it?

The Tea Party movement adopted “Objectivism,” the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Objectivism is about the idea that selfishness is good. The Tea Party brought Ayn Rand’s Book, Atlas Shrugged, to movie theaters in 2011. In Atlas Shrugged, the elite, decided to stop working, retreat to a valley, and rebuild when our country collapsed from the press of those who lived from “entitlements.“ Objectivism materialized in the early 1960’s, long before we knew much about how our brains are wired, and now we know we are also wired for community, cooperation, and compassion and not merely for Social Darwinism, the theme of Objectivism, taught today at the University of Texas.

Bertrand Russell, the philosopher and mathematician, said, “Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know.” We may be entitled to our opinions, but not our own facts. Unfortunately, the Objectivism clan never updated its philosophy to reflect what we now know. Followers of Objectivism have warned us to no longer follow the moral codes of the past as “Our Moral Code is Out of Date.“ Yet, the followers have failed to see that it’s touted moral code is also outdated and not supported by what we have learned about human nature since the 1960s. Christian Science Monitor‘s article, “How is elitist Ayn Rand a tea party hero? The contradiction should concern America,“ is a worthy read. The article concludes:

Tea partiers praise Ayn Rand’s ‘pure capitalism.’ But they ignore her oligarchic, elitist views – ideals that are fundamentally antiAmerican and deeply at odds with the tea party’s own cause.

Patriotism has not been regenerated.

Cutting essential services is not Patriotism. Championing farm and oil and gas subsidies for Tea Party members and corporate America is not Patriotism. Reducing taxes for those who can pay at the same time income disparity with the middle class deepens, restricting their ability to pay their fair share, is not Patriotism.

Why have we voted for what is becoming an oppressive, far-right oligarchy? Bertolt Brecht said it best in the Threepenny Opera, “First comes the belly.“ Noted Professor, J. Rufus Fears, tells us in his lectures that throughout history troubled people again and again vote against their interest, voluntarily giving up freedom for security when the responsibility of self-government becomes too much. Rarely do those trusting souls who willingly make the trade gain. What happens is that the economic elite that rise to power, and not the middle class, prosper disproportionately.

Flag- Ft. DeSoto Park

For many working people, the “American Dream is Turning into an Absolute Nightmare.” Despite the musings of House Speaker John Boehner, trickle-down economics is a dream that cannot become a reality. Perhaps that is why 75 Professors from the Catholic University of America wrote a letter to John Boehner, a Catholic, that the budget he champions guts “long established protections for the most vulnerable members of society.”

There is an old Chinese saying, “Trouble is but a disguised opportunity.” That is as true today as it ever has been. In “Get Up, Stand Up; Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite,” Bruce Levine writes:

Elitism—be it rule by kings or corporations—is the opposite of genuine democracy. It is in the interest of those at the top of society to convince people below them that (1) democracy is merely about the right to vote; and (2) corporations and the wealthy elite are so powerful, any thought that “regular people” can achieve real power is naive. In genuine democracy and in real-deal populism, people not only believe that they have a right to self-government; they also have the individual strength and group cohesion necessary to take actions to eliminate top-down controls over their lives.

All anti-elitists need to realize that what they share bonds them much more than anything that divides them. It is true that not all anti-elitists have the same views of human nature or the same exact solutions to self-government. In genuine democracy and real-deal populism, people will continue to disagree on issues. However, if we want to defeat the elite, we must come to realize that listening to one another and ironing out differences can be individually strengthening as well as galvanizing for us as a whole.

May 7, 2011 was my eightieth birthday. Finally, I accept personal responsibility that democracy is not a spectator sport. When we get up and stand up, Patriotism will be reborn. It is never too late. Today’s troubles must become our disguised opportunity.

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