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IDON'T have any problem expressing support for the troops in the Gulf. Some of my best friends, as they say, are soldiers, and I wear a yellow ribbon on my coat in their honor. Nor do I have any problem with patriotism in general. Where I come from, an American flag flew in front of nearly every house long before Aug. 2, and military service is held in highest esteem.
Although I didn't believe the U.S. should have started the Gulf War, I believe it should finish it. Like my colleague Joshua Sharfstein, I find anti-war activists' rhetoric simplistic and their demands naive. Nothing short of isolationism or Quakeresque pacificism could justify a unilateral withdrawal from the Gulf.
Ironic, then, that I sympathize more with anti-war activist than with pro-war demonstrators. It's more than just a natural inclination to prefer peace to war or liberals to conservatives. I prefer anti-war activists because the pro-war demonstrators scare the hell out of me.
MY OBJECTION is not to a little "old-fashioned American patriotism," but to nationalistic euphoria. Patriotism does not rejoice in war and killing; it approaches war with solemn trepidation. Patriotism should not begrudge others their right to dissent. Patriotism should not question the loyalty and patriotism of those who disagree.
Nationalistic euphoria, as it has erupted in the wake of the Gulf War, does all of these things.
The orgy of television coverage following the first U.S. attack showed high school students screaming "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" and gushing into a microphone about their pride in America. Dozens of people were shown denouncing anti-war protestors. (One woman said they "make me sick.")
The Home Shopping Network used the outbreak of war as a pretext to hawk Operation Desert Shield T-shirts and 3 X 5' American flags; the "amount sold" figure at the bottom of the screen rose so fast it looked like a stopwatch running.
The K-Mart in the Assembly Square Mall in Somerville did a brisk business in T-shirts with bloodthirsty slogans such as "Visit beautiful downtown Baghdad--while it's still there."
And the crowds at the National Hockey League All-Star game and the National Football Conference championship yelled and chanted continuously throughout the playing of the national anthem, their fists raised in frenzied pride in their country's military prowess. Their behavior resembled the applause at a movie theater when Chuck Norris blows away the last commie/terrorist/bad guy with his missile launcher.
SOMETHING'S wrong here. The Gulf War is nothing to be happy about. It's not even anything to be particularly proud of; facile comparisons to World War II notwithstanding, this war is a nasty police action, a tough job that somebody's got to do and we ended up doing. Necessary or not, justified or not, war is never and occasion for celebration, as anyone who has ever fought in one can tell you.
Perhaps after it becomes clear that real war does not resemble the cinematic version, this jubilation will die down. But even then, I still will prefer anti-war rallies.
Part of it is a question of style. Contemporary peace activists might be naive and intellectually slovenly, but they are dissenters, and dissent is both sine qua non and proof positive of a functioning democracy.
Pro-war activists, on the other hand, are jumping on a bandwagon and celebrating their submission to established authority. "Love for one's country which is not part of one's love of humanity," wrote psychologist Erich Fromm, "is not love, but idolatrous worship."
Then there is the problem of violence. Peace activist (with the exception of the revolutionary nuts who sometimes tag along) are, almost by definition, non-violent. Prowar demonstrators often aren't. Already, we have seen scenes reminiscent of Vietnam, in which hard-hat hawks physically assault peaceful demonstrators.
But worst of all is the suggestion, slyly promoted by many pro-war enthusiasts, that anti-war protestors are somehow disloyal and detrimental to the war effort. The lessons of Vietnam learned, anti-war protestors have taken great pains to avoid criticizing the troops in the field, partly out of tactical pragmatism and partly out of the absence of a heroic Ho Chi Minh.
Nevertheless, when the Harvard Republican Club sponsored its "Rally for the Troops," their publicity posters had the words "and Bush!" hastily scribbled on. The implication that one had to support Bush to support the troops was clear.
During the rally, Joel D. Hornstein '91 captured the prevailing sentiment of the pro-war movement: "The time for debate has ended." Thisis the most dangerous sentiment of all.
Conservatives have long argued that America cannot afford the luxury of debate and disunity when it comes to conflict with totalitarian powers. This claim should not be taken lightly. Adolph Hitler once observed that "the great strength of the totalitarian state is that it forces those who fear it to imitate it." In an all-our war against a totalitarian power, it is not unreasonable to expect that we might have to dispense in order to preserve them for the long term.
The Gulf War, however, is not one of those situations. In a war of so little consequence that we haven't even put our economy on a war footing, there is no absolutely no reason to put our democracy in hock Conservative opposition to debate and dissent is not motivated by military necessity, but by the most venal sort of political opportunism. The insinuation that opponents of war somehow love their country less is one of the basest--and one of the most effective--smears in all of politics.
"Naturally, the common people don't want war," noted one particularly astute student of mass politics. "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders...All you have to do is to tell them: they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism."
Thus spoke Hermann Goering.
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