I'm writing this late on the evening of D-Day, that pivotal and blood-drenched June day in 1944, when so many uniformed American kids were mowed down by German machine gun fire on the pitiless, wind-swept beaches of Normandy, only enough surviving to mount the anything-but-certain drive against the closest thing to Evil Incarnate, I imagine, we've ever seen on this poor old planet.
Despite all evidence, the best work of our best poets and journalists, to the contrary, we insist on romanticizing modern war, reshaping it in our minds to serve our own purposes. Many of us probably believe our American kids, sick with fear on that longest day, hugged their rifles and, as they jumped from their LST's, still had the cool sense of self-sacrifice to pledge themselves to rid the world of every last Nazi.
Me? I doubt it. I suspect that, like every soldier in every war recorded by history, American and Nazi soldiers alike just prayed to get through the day alive. We try like hell to demonize our enemies, but eventually the truth comes out: they're human, too.
Did every beach-storming American kid that June 6 have a clear and detailed idea of what he was fighting -- and might well be dying -- for? Again, I doubt it. If you'd asked the young American soldier, he'd probably have rattled off a couple of carefully crafted phrases he'd heard -- or more likely his parents had heard -- FR, a Harvard-educated suit, intone in one of his "fireside chats," on the family radio. If you'd asked his young German counterpart, he'd probably have rattled off a couple of high-falutin doozies he'd heard Heinrich Himmler, or maybe even Adolph himself, create to further his own purpose. Lofty sentiments? "Save the world for democracy?" "Deutschland Uber Alles?" Shoot, all we grunts want is to see the wife and kids again. All we want is to survive to see the sun rising on a sweet new day. Is such an idea heresy? I don't think so. As basic human beings, do you believe the American and German soldiers were all that different, the former all heroes, the latter all villains? Don't count on it
A recent editorial in this newspaper recalls the ever-popular topic of flag desecration. In this case, the writer asked us if, last year, we remembered "some college students in California" [and doesn't this information help explain the following outrage?] taking down the American flag, putting the Mexican flag up in its place, then hanging the American flag upside down under the Mexican flag."
"I," the Daily Mail writer reports, "was outraged!"
I wouldn't be at all surprised if the first such desecration of our flag, and consequent outrage, occurred while Betsy Ross, poor gal, still had pinpricks in her fingers.
The American flag is a piece of cloth. If you set a match to it, what you're left with is a small pile of ashes, indistinguishable from any other small pile of ashes. What our flag REPRESENTS, however, is a very different thing. It stands for the hard-won freedom to express one's opinions, even if that opinion is shared by no one else. That freedom of opinion, I think, is America's gift to a beleaguered, tyrannized world. Ever may she wave.
So, it disturbs me when this reporter muses that "back in the day attacking the Stars and Stripes would be considered fighting words. They may have ended up choking on whatever statement they thought they were making." There is a kind of mist -- intentional or not, I'm not certain -- that obscures the writer's point. Ah, the good old days, when dissent was greeted with a noose?
"My country, right or wrong. But right or wrong, my country." I've always had some trouble with that credo. But, in any event, I'd add to that, that I'll never agree to salute my flag while I know my country and/or its government is engaged in reprehensible, immoral conduct. Like intentionally infecting blankets with fatal diseases to then be distributed among Indians who had no internal defense systems. Like letting land-hungry white settlers uproot the whole Cheyenne nation and drive them from their ancestral lands in the east, on the "Trail of Tears," to a rootless misery in our western lands. Like uprooting and interning the model-citizen Japanese in America from their homes and placing them in what amounted to concentration camps during World War II.
And, my friends, that's just for starters. We've sometimes behaved like the worst kind of fascist and racist state. We just don't use those words for ourselves, but, rather, save them for our current enemies.
Samuel Johnson, creator of the first English dictionary in 1755, defined "patriotism" as "the last refuge of a scoundrel." That's a tad harsh, I suspect. Suffice it to say, rather, that true patriotism -- authentic, selfless love of country -- is far from a faithful and unquestioning obedience to all the laws of the land. A country populated by no one but worshipful Yeah-sayers is headed for trouble. As we are, you'll surely agree, today. We don't need any more people like the faintly threatening editorialist in this paper. What we need are a few more highly articulate, persuasive, and courageous Henry Thoreaus and Ralph Naders, disturbers of the misleading peace, who can rationally assess today's American malady, then serve us up a blunt prescription in cold, hard, plain words -- like bullets.