Patriotism Lite

A United States History professor I know tells me an interesting story from late March of 2003. “How many of you,” she asked her U.S. History class that fateful month, “support the American war on Iraq.” Two-thirds of the 100 students in her lecture hall raised their hands. “Okay,” she said, “how many of you are willing to enlist in the armed forces to join the war?” One hand went up in response to the second question.

The first section of last Sunday’s New York Times contains an interesting article titled “All Quiet on the Home Front and Some Soldiers Are Asking Why.” The story’s author Thom Shanker cites a number of American military officials and academic experts on the disconnect between the United States’ officially declared commitment to waging an all-out “War on Terror” and Americans’ reluctance to sacrifice in support of that war. Noticing the absence of any “serious talk” of “a tax increase to force Americans to cover the $5 billion a month in costs from Iraq, Afghanistan and new counterterrorism missions” and the lack of “concerted efforts like the savings bond drive or gasoline rationing that helped unite the country behind its fighting forces in wars past,” Shanker quotes an officer veteran of the Iraq occupation to chilling effect. “Nobody in America is asked to sacrifice,” this officer says, “except us.” By “us,” he means the armed forces.

Shanker also quotes the venerable military sociologist Charles Moskos, who criticizes what he calls Americans’ “patriotism lite,” whereby “the political leaders are afraid to ask the public for any real sacrifices.” This, Moskos says, “doesn’t speak too highly of the citizenry.” “It’s almost,” says a retired U.S. military official, “as if the politicians want to be able to declare war and at the same time maintain a sense of normalcy” (Thom Shanker, “All Quiet on the Home Front and Some Soldiers Are Asking Why,” New York Times, 24 July, 2005, A17)

There’s a lot missing in Shanker’s article, consistent with mainstream U.S. journalism’s general reluctance to take seriously the extent to which Americans are divided along related lines of class and power. There’s nothing about the sacrifice imposed on the many millions of poor and otherwise disadvantaged Americans who are seeing needed social programs cut to pay for the deadly, deficit-generating combination of massive “defense” (empire) expenditures with huge tax cuts for the rich. There’s nothing about the millions of Americans workers thrown out of work by the also-massive American trade deficit, which is widened by the Bush administration’s determination to privilege military expenditures over “homeland” economic vitality. There’s nothing about the Bush administration’s determination to use the “war on terror” (curiously expanded to include the occupation of Iraq, a country that posed no terrorist or other threat to the U.S. in 2003) as cover for a radically regressive domestic policy agenda that (more than simply resisting a “tax increase” to pay for the war) grants gigantic giveaways (tax and otherwise) to the privileged few. There’s nothing, of course, about the racist, imperialist, and (curiously enough) terrorist nature of “war on terror,” amply displayed in the prisons of U.S. occupation and in the broad indifference that American government and media show towards the many innocent Arab victims of U.S. military actions in the Middle East – the de-personalized “collateral damage” of supposed American “liberation.” There’s nothing about the difference between the arguably genuine threat posed to Americans by the actual fascist Axis of the 1940s (when Uncle Sam successfully advanced savings bond and gasoline-rationing drives to “unite the country behind its fighting forces”) and the concocted and imaginary threat posed by Iraq (one part of Bush’s laughable 2002 “State of the Union” construction – the “Axis of Evil”) in 2002 and 2003.

There’s little said about the American citizenry’s intelligent skepticism towards Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his determination to merge that invasion with a “war on terror.” To his credit, however, Shanker quotes a perceptive academic who notes that “the public” sees “the ongoing mission in Iraq…in a different light than a terrorist attack on American soil.” “The public wants very much to support the troops” in Iraq, this professor says, “but it doesn’t really believe in the mission. Most consider it a war of choice, and a majority – although a thin one – thinks it was the wrong choice.”

Such skepticism towards Bush’s war on Iraq is something different than Dr. Moskos’ “patriotism lite.” It seems more like a patriotism done right, one that speaks highly of a significant part of the citizenry. It rejects blind obedience to the deceptive rhetoric of militaristic elites who want mass consent to illegal wars in accordance with the authoritarian slogan, “My Country, Right or Wrong.”

Still, there is a very real ongoing conflict between the hard, murderous requirements of militarism and the soft, “normalcy”-craving imperatives of American consumer capitalism, which tries to reduce democratic citizenship to the uninterrupted and often trivial pursuit, purchase, and enjoyment of commodities. The “patriotism lite” charge applies reasonably to that significant part of the American populace that is content to let predominantly working-class others fight and die in imperial campaigns for which they personally refuse to sacrifice in substantive way. “Support Our Troops” is an often cheap slogan on the back of many suburban gas-guzzling SUV’s loaded with middle-class soccer kids and with relatively affluent Moms and Dads who would never enlist their children in a dangerous American-imperial service that relies almost entirely (as Moskos and others have shown) on the children of America’s poor and working classes. Nowhere is the slogan cheaper than in the oval office, whose Fortunate Son inhabitant George “Bring ‘Em On” Bush continues his Vietnam-era record of cheering on poorer and browner other Americans to death and destruction in deceptively sold imperial campaigns he prefers to personally sit out.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is a writer and researcher in Chicago, IL. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004) and Segregated Schools: Race, Class, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005)

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