Sunday, September 11, 2005

Dulce et Decorum Est?

Nothing calls into question the meaning of "patriotism" so much as the false pride asserted by American war veterans who demand that all criticism of U.S. combatants be stifled lest their feelings be hurt.

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" wrote Horatio in his advice to youth: how sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland! Military recruitment has become such a permanent fixture in the United States, which has yet to spare even one generation from war, that the poet's axiom rarely is examined.

Frequently enough, the notion is sprinkled with holy water as clerics bless troops and carnage is turned into virtue, as if war were what Jesus intended in his call for ultimate self-sacrifice, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Mottos such as "God and Country," or in some Catholic countries "God, Country, Home," merge cross and sword into a term recently used ill-advisedly by President Bush: crusade.

Bush has forgotten, or more likely never knew, that the Christian West lost the Crusades to the Muslim Middle East -- much as his own misadventures in Iraq have ceded the initiative of war to the present-day fanatical Muslim insurrection we know as al Qaeda.

Similarly, we in the American republic risk repeating the blighted history of the Roman virtue of patriotism if we close our eyes to the perils of adopting this questionable ethical imperative as a dogmatic truism above criticism.

To understand this we need recall how Roman patriotism, which was similar to the traditional nationalism of the last century and a half, hung its rhetorical hat on the notion of "patria," Latin for "father's land." The term "patria" originally meant the estate or homestead under the sway of the "pater familias" or male head of household, usually the patriarch of an extended family.

Beginning in monarchical Rome, and running through the republic and empire, the pater familias held power of life and death over wife, children, slaves, cattle and crops, all of whom were sustained by the wealth and bounty of his land. Young Patricians, the male sons or grandsons of the pater, gave evidence of their worthiness by risking life and limb to defend the patrimony, or inheritance.

Rich, young imperial Romans gave their lives to debauchery and violent sport. They left soldiering to the sons of Romans so poor that they could pay no taxes -- their only contribution they could make to the commonwealth was children (in Latin, "proles"). These proletarians were sent to serve in Rome's Legions.

Horatio's words at the dawning of the imperium served as consolation for those who died in battle, since those who served and survived now received the spoils of conquest -- which made up for the patrimony they lacked.

Here's where the moral tale comes to haunt us.

In similar terms, the sons of the landed gentry of the original Thirteen States fought the King of England to defend their patrimony in a war in which neither slaves nor indentured servants, much less Indians, were expected to fight. The few who did were regarded as exceptional.

Such patriotism, as in Rome, was short lived: dead men cannot inherit wealth.

Indeed, our War of Independence was so widely regarded as a struggle to the benefit of large landholders, that many poorer farmers refused to pay the taxes to defray the debt contracted to pay the military costs, in a movement known as the Whiskey Rebellion. By the Civil War, social privilege became enshrined in law: a U.S. wealthy young man could buy his way out of conscription by paying for someone to serve in his stead. U.S. soldiers through the end of World War I received meager postwar compensation, as witnessed eloquently by the popular song "Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?"

It was only after World War II, when the spoils were so gargantuan that the even the wealthy could not sop up the bounty, that a semblance of a new social contract -- albeit only with veterans, and mostly to the benefit of whites -- was crafted. An entire college-educated middle class arose out of GI Bill funds and the prosperity to employ the new graduates.

When predominantly non-white veterans returned from Vietnam -- the two white Vietnam-vintage presidents so far did not serve in that war -- no similar reward was offered: the Greenback of free enterprise was willing to fight the Reds to the last impoverished, Black recruit. After that, they were on their own; today Black Vietnam veterans are homeless by the thousands, thrown out of halfway houses by that great "patriot," Ronald Reagan -- another flagwaver who did not see a second of battle.

The Bush Administration has developed empty flagwaving and hollow patriotic-sounding rhetoric to a fine art. Not long after September 11, it proposed legislation disguised as "economic stimulus" that actually reimburses millions in taxes from previous years to the nation's top corporations, precisely as they lay off hundreds of thousands of Americans from work.

Where can the unemployed go? To fight in Iraq, of course!

As the Abu-Ghraib torture scandal shows, the fighting men and women in Iraq come from the families least educated, least to benefit from Bush's tax cuts.

The wealthy, meanwhile, are laughing at those suckered into becoming cannon fodder. If each member of society, emulating the greedy few at the top, merely scrambles to the hills to protect the blood-related nuclear tribe, do we have a civilization worth saving?

Clearly a broader, more modern sense of what patriotism means is needed. As human beings we are all citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq, as we are of the United States or England or New Zealand.

Being called to lay down one's life for another need not mean martyrdom nor pointless death. To lay down my life and allow my earthly body to be killed in a relatively finite period of time, while painful, is ultimately easier than handing over my life in service to another over decades.

We are patriots? Let us pay our taxes cheerfully and press our leaders to use them for the general welfare, not merely to bolster privilege and inequity or to repay bribery.

We are patriots? Let us strive to make sure the least in our society have food, clothing, shelter, schooling and the change to earn a living.

We are patriots? Let us do some of the considerate small things that glue a society together: respecting traffic lights, turning off appliances that use up energy when they are not needed, accepting minor inconveniences for the good of the community, be it local, state, or national.

We are patriots? Let us realize that our "fatherland" is really the world.