Saturday, July 4, 2015

Toy soldiers and Real Patriotism

 Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts — a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniments, though it may be
    The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.
--Henry David Thoreau

Today is the 4th of July. Thomas Jefferson died on July 4th, 1826 at his plantation in Virginia, and, improbably, his fellow revolutionary and comrade, John Adams, died in Massachusetts the same day. Now those two were Patriots. Even the least mystical and most cynical among us must admit, dying on the 4th of July, before the internet and instant communication, hundreds of miles apart, after all they had done to get America started, having risked hanging for treason against the king--that may just mean something. 

This is a day for ceremonies of faith, patriotism, emotion. The military is good at ceremonies; they relish ceremony and get all into it, especially ceremonies of death. "Duty, honor, country." Who has heard those words at a military funeral and remained dry eyed?

But, what I don't get is the robotic movements of the soldiers. They try to transform themselves into machines with those stiff, jerky little movements, like boys impersonating solemnity.  Why do we want men imitating machines?

I understand, I think, the importance of indoctrinating the sense of team, of group in a bunch of men (and now women) who have to run ahead into danger. There are ways of getting people to forget themselves, to push aside 18 years of conditioning at self preservation to get to a place where your relationship to the group becomes transcendent. Unit cohesion is not an empty phrase when you are under fire. I get that.

But I do not get the emptiness of robots as an ideal.

For me, and I know I'm repeating myself, but whatever patriotism is, it cannot be easy; it cannot cost nothing or demand no real sacrifice.  So putting your hand over your heart at the ball game when they are playing the national anthem, or pledging allegiance to the flag, or wearing an American flag lapel pin are not patriotic acts or gestures. These things cheapen patriotism. They suggest patriotism can be risk free and easy.

The most patriotic thing I do every year is to pay my income taxes, without grubbing for every last deduction or listing questionable deductions or not reporting income. That involves some, however minor, sacrifice and faith.

Whatever patriotism is, it begins deep within the mind, some would say the soul, and it surfaces in action, but not pre formulated action on a script written for you by others. It's not a performance and has no artifice. And it means something. 

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