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True Patriotism: Veterans Day Reflections

Walter Moss served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in Oklahoma and France, 1960-1962.


A day honoring those who have served in the military seems an appropriate occasion for reflecting on patriotism. Are those who served by that very fact more patriotic than those who did not volunteer for such service? Or when the draft was in effect (e.g., 1948-1973), more patriotic than conscientious objectors? What is true patriotism?

Some of my recent reading speaks to these questions, as does the example of poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. The readings are “Teaching Patriotism: Love and Critical Freedom,” a chapter in Martha Nussbaum’s new book, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, and several passages from the writings of Wendell Berry (see here and here for more on him).

During the late 1960s, when criticism of the war in Vietnam was at its apex, I remember hearing much discussion about the meaning of patriotism. During this same period I was writing a dissertation on the polemics of Russian thinker Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) with Russian nationalists. One section dealt with their differences over “what true patriotism was.” While writing, I was mindful of the historical parallel of Soloviev’s jingoistic opponents calling him unpatriotic and exponents of a “love-it-or-leave-it-America criticizing “draft dodgers” or anti-Vietnam-War demonstrators for the same fault.

Later on, when studying Tolstoy’s thoughts on civil disobedience and non-violence, I read several of his essays on patriotism. One long one was simply entitled “On Patriotism,”another “Patriotism and Government,” and a third, “Patriotism, or Peace.” Whereas Soloviev thought that there was a good patriotism and a bad patriotism, Tolstoy wrote (in his third essay) that “no one can explain what this good patriotism is. . . . Patriotism cannot be good.”

Nussbaaum, however, disagrees. She defines patriotism “as a strong emotion taking the nation as its object . . . . It is a form of love.” And she shares Soloviev’s view and that of the Italian Guiseppe Mazzini that (in her words) “national sentiment [patriotism] was a valuable, even necessary ‘fulcrum’ on which one could ultimately leverage generous sentiments extending to all humanity. . . . [It] can play . . . an essential role in creating a decent society, in which, indeed, liberty and justice are available to all. . . . The public love we need, then, includes love of the nation. . . . But it can be construed in many different ways, with different consequences,” both positive and negative.

Her examples of great patriotic leaders demonstrate that she believes they can be found among those who led their country, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, in fighting what she considers just wars, but also among dissident adherents of non-violence and breakers of unjust laws such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to these four leaders, she also signals out Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who shared many of Gandhi’s ideals but not his absolute pacifism, and Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).

Taken together, the patriotism of these six men emphasized not just love of country, but compassion, justice, equality, freedom, toleration, inclusiveness, and peace, even if they regretted, as did Lincoln, that war was sometimes necessary. Moreover, their patriotism did not demean other nations, but wished them well. And their patriotism was not of the self-satisfied variety, but one that valued critical dissent and realized much work was still necessary if their beloved nation (USA or India) was to live up to its highest ideals.

Kentucky writer Wendell Berry shares many of Nussbaum’s views. As compared to her, however, he emphasizes a patriotism more centered on one’s local community, is more critical of our national economy, and is more pacifistic (a two-part essay on Berry’s pacifism is forthcoming on this blog).

In an interview several years ago, this leading spokesman of localism said:

If you understand your own place and its intricacy and the possibility of affection and good care of it, then imaginatively you recognize that possibility for other places and other people, so that if you wish well to your own place, and you recognize that your own place is a part of the world, then this requires a well-wishing toward the whole world. . . .

And this is a different impulse from the impulse of nationalism. This is what I would call patriotism: the love of a home country that’s usually much smaller than a nation.

In a 1991 essay on “Conservation and Local Economy,” he called for

a quiet [non-violent] secession by which people find the practical means and the strength of spirit to remove themselves from an economy that is exploiting them and destroying their homeland. The great, greedy, indifferent national and international economy is killing rural America, just as it is killing America’s cities — it is killing our country. Experience has shown that there is no use in appealing to this economy for mercy toward the earth or toward any human community. All true patriots must find ways of opposing it.

Berry’s opposition to war was already clearly evident in 1968, when he authored several statements against the war in Vietnam. (Both pieces can be found here.) In one of them he stated, “I reject absolutely the notion that a man may best serve his country by serving in the army.” In another, he praised a young man, Don Pratt, who was jailed for refusing to serve in the military. He referred to such men as Pratt as “among the most precious moral resources of our country. Because they have not only believed in our highest ideals, but have acted as they believed, the world is whole before them, and they are whole before the world”

In an anti-Cold-War poem of this same period, To a Siberian Woodsman,” Berry wrote:

There is no government so worthy as your son who fishes with
you in silence besides the forest pool.
There is no national glory so comely as your daughter whose
hands have learned a music and go their own way on the keys.
There is no national glory so comely as my daughter who
dances and sings and is the brightness of my house.
There is no government so worthy as my son who laughs, as he
comes up the path from the river in the evening, for joy.

And in his essay praising Don Pratt, he wrote that placing any national allegiance before one’s duty to household and earth “is to invite a state of moral chaos.” Although his pacifism in the late 1960s was primarily directed against the war in Vietnam, he could also no longer imagine any justifiable war. In a 1991 essay he wrote, “War always encourages a patriotism that means not love of country but unquestioning obedience to power.”

A decade later, after 9/11/2001, he observed that

apologists for war will insist that war answers the problem of national self-defense. But the doubter, in reply, will ask to what extent the cost even of a successful war of national defense—in life, money, material, foods, health, and (inevitably) freedom—may amount to a national defeat. National defense through war always involves some degree of national defeat. . . . There is a fundamental inconsistency between war and freedom.

In a modern war, fought with modern weapons and on the modern scale, neither side can limit to “the enemy” the damage that it does. These wars damage the world. We know enough by now to know that you cannot damage a part of the world without damaging all of it. Modern war has not only made it impossible to kill “combatants” without killing “noncombatants,” it has made it impossible to damage your enemy without damaging yourself.

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After the publication of a “New National Security Strategy” in 2002, Berry responded with “A Citizen's Response to the National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” In it, he wrote: “Thomas Jefferson justified general education by the obligation of citizens to be critical of their government. . . . An inescapable requirement of true patriotism, love for one's land, is a vigilant distrust of any determinative power, elected or unelected, that may preside over it.” Further on he added: “For a nation to be, in the truest sense, patriotic, its citizens must love their land with a knowing, intelligent, sustaining, and protective love. They must not, for any price, destroy its health, its beauty, or its productivity. And they must not allow their patriotism to be degraded to a mere loyalty to symbols or any present set of officials.”

In general, Berry’s patriotism is very different than our present emphasis that concentrates almost exclusively, and not just on Veterans Day, on the “noble sacrifices of our men and women in the military.” His patriotism emphasizes more the love of our local communities, lands, and environment. It is not that Berry does not appreciate the sacrifices and love of many soldiers for our country, as we should on Veterans Day, it is just that he doubts how much good warfare ever does. His fiction (e.g., Hannah Coulter) may be full of love for all the soldiers and their families who suffered through war, but in a 2007 essay on the Civil War, he even casts doubts upon whether that war was worth all the deaths, wounds, pain, and suffering it caused. Although he views slavery as a great evil and realizes that the war brought about the emancipation of slaves, he still writes: “And yet it seems true that Martin Luther King and his followers, by refusing to answer violence with violence, did more to alter racial attitudes in the South than was done by all the death and damage of the Civil War.”

Finally, in this essay I wish to highlight someone who for me captures the essence of true patriotism—Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). His story is one of American success. The son of hard-working Swedish emigrants, he labored at various jobs in his youth, and in 1898 served as a private during the Spanish-American War. Eventually, he became a leading poet and the major Lincoln biographer of his generation, winning a Pulitzer Prize for both history (1940) and poetry (1951). In 1959, on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, he became the first private citizen in the twentieth century to address a Joint Session of the U. S. Congress. His friend Adlai Stevenson, Illinois Governor and later the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, said that he “is the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream.” (For sources for all quotes regarding Sandburg, see here). At a memorial service for him after his death in 1967, almost six thousand people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. They included Chief Justice Warren of the Supreme Court, Sandburg’s friend Justice Thurgood Marshall, various congressmen, poets, and President Lyndon Johnson. In the president’s remarks he referred to Sandburg as a “on September 17th, 1967vital, exuberant, wise, and generous man.”

But it was not for his many successes that we should regard him as a great patriot but for his values and character.

One scholar contends that “every work from 1922 forward served this function [nation-building] in some way” and that “from that point onward, Carl Sandburg transforms into . . . an American patriot. His many works, in multiple genres, served as efforts to give Americans of all ages a sense of their country’s history as well as its potential. He also wanted Americans to understand and appreciate the common man and the common laborer.”

His love of his country manifested itself in many ways. There were the six major volumes on Lincoln, not counting abridged and minor editions. There were his numerous poetry volumes, including his affirmation of the American people in The People, Yes (1936). There were his collections of American folk songs, which appeared in his The American Songbag (1927) and The New American Songbag (1950), and which he often sang as he toured the country with his guitar. About the first collection he wrote, “It is not so much my book as that of a thousand other people who have made its 260 colonial, pioneer, railroad, work-gang, hobo, Irish, Negro, Mexican, gutter, Gossamer songs, chants and ditties.” There were his various efforts during World War II to boost morale, including a weekly columnfor the Chicago Times (some of which were reprinted in his 1943 book Home Front Memo), radio broadcasts, and captions for a morale-boosting exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. There was his thousand-plus-pages novel Remembrance Rock (1948), which detailed the growth of the American Dream from Plymouth Colony until the end of World War II.

There was his political involvement from serving as a secretary to Emil Seidel, a pre-WWI socialist mayor in Milwaukee, to presidential campaigning for Franklin Roosevelt, his friend Adlai Stevenson, and later Jack Kennedy. In 1908 Sandburg declared: “One reason I’m a Socialist is because the Socialists were the first to fight to abolish child labor, and today the Socialist party is the only one that has dared to declare in its platform that it is unalterably opposed to child labor, and that it will do all in its power to remove all conditions that make it possible for human beings anywhere to be underfed and overworked.” Part of the reason that he eventually supported Democrats was that they advocated some of the positions of earlier socialists. About the Democratic platform adopted at the 1960 convention, he said: “That’s a very good imitation of the national Socialist Party platform adopted in Chicago in 1908.”

There was his work in behalf of minorities. As a newspaper reporter in1919 he wrote pieces that were published in a volume entitled The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919 (1919). A Jewish friend, Harry Golden, wrote in 1961 about his “fight against anti-Semitism and Negrophobia.” Not long before Sandburg’s death, Roy Wilkens, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), made him a lifetime member and declared him “a major prophet of Civil Rights.” During World War II Sandburg hired two Japanese-Americans to work for him during the same period that over 100,000 other such Americans were being uprooted and sent to internment camps. He also wrote a column warning against such prejudice.

And this list does not exhaust his manifestations of love for the American people. We can also see it in the stories he wrote for children, in the love he conveyed for many American films when he was the main film critic for the Chicago Daily News throughout most of the 1920s, and in many other ways too numerous to mention.

Yet his patriotism was never of the narrow, self-satisfied type. He did not think of America as an exclusionary “Christian nation.” In response to a question about his own religion, he once said: “I am a Christian, a Quaker, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, a Confucian, and maybe a Catholic pantheist. . . . I am all of these and more.”

In the early 1950s, as Senator Joe McCarthy was stirring up flames of intolerance and suspicion of foreign ways, he collaborated with his brother-in-law, Edward Steichen, on an exhibit of over 500 photographs for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. After it opened in January 1955, it subsequently was displayed in various parts of the world, becoming the most viewed display of photographs in history. The pictures in the exhibit were gathered from almost 70 countries and were meant to demonstrate humanity’s oneness. Sandburg wrote the Prologue for the extremely popular book, The Family of Man, which reproduced the photographs. In it he wrote:

Everywhere is love and love-making, weddings and babies from generation to generation keeping the family of Man alive and continuing. Everywhere the sun, moon and stars, ­­the climates and weathers, have meanings for people. Though meanings vary, we are alike in all countries and tribes in trying to read what sky, land and sea say to us. Alike and ever alike we are on all continents in the need of love, food, clothing, work, speech, worship, sleep, games, dancing, fun. From the tropics to arctics humanity lives with these needs so alike, so inexorably alike.

And he closed the Prologue with a portion of a poem he had first written a few years before.

There is only one man in the world
and his name is All Men.
There is only one woman in the world
and her name is All Women.
There is only one child in the world
and the child’s name is All Children.

In the last section of the last poem (“Timesweep”) of his final book of poetry, he repeated these lines. They remind us of the humanism of Berry’s “To a Siberian Woodsman.”

But let’s now return to Veterans Day, 2013. It is fitting that today we honor the veterans who served their country, as Sandburg did in 1898 in the Spanish-American War. The wars they fought may not always have been the most noble—many prominent Americans in 1898 thought we were waging an imperialist war—but the patriotism and sacrifices of military men and women have nevertheless been real, both for them and their families, and should not be minimized. And those who sacrificed included Americans of all races and political persuasions, including Ira Hayes the Native American memorialized at the D. C. Iwo Jima Memorial, numerous German Americans and Japanese Americans, and all the African Americans, who for a long time served in segregated units like that of WWII’s Tuskegee Airmen. For decades in the U.S. Senate, the injuries that Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Bob Dole (R-Kansas) received as decorated soldiers in WWII were clearly evident. And the two senators served as constant reminders that patriotic service has been rendered by people of differing political beliefs.

Tomorrow, however, and on other days of the year we should not forgot our patriots who opposed some or even all of our wars. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Wendell Berry, and some of the other people Berry has praised. They include not only the jailed Don Pratt (mentioned above), but Dorothy Day, who was an absolute pacifist, opposing our war effort even after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Who dares say that this woman did not love her country? This woman to whom Sandburg once sent a check for bail—from 1955 to 1959 she was jailed annually for pacifist protest—whom President Obama once called one of our five “great reformers,” and whom the Catholic Church is now considering for sainthood.

As fitting as it is to celebrate Veterans Day, it is also fitting to celebrate Martin Luther King Day (on the third Monday of January). As this essay has made clear, the best patriotism involves not just love of country, but also valuing compassion, justice, equality, freedom, toleration, and inclusiveness. And it yearns for peace, even if war is sometimes necessary, as at different times Lincoln and Sandburg thought it was. In 1918, on today’s date (November 11), WWI ended and people rejoiced that a horrible war was over and that the blessings of peace might once again shower down upon them, whether they be English, German, French, Russian, American, or other.

We may not have a “Peace Day,” but on Martin Luther King Day we can celebrate peace and all the other manifestations of true patriotism displayed by King, an untiring advocate of of non-violence and an orator whose resonant voice we can still hear intoning one of the greatest patriotic speeches ever delivered (transcript here). And we can do so without scorning Veterans Day or minimizing the sacrifices of veterans. One of the qualities that so many true American patriots value about our country is our respect for diversity of opinion. By embracing and celebrating both days, we can keep that flame alive.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss

Monday, 11 November 2013