Is it the soldiers or God?
The Fourth of July is about fireworks, drinking beer, having cookouts and celebrating a day off work while the news media feed you nationalistic propaganda. That’s the way it always has been and likely always will be.
I don’t mind the day off, the fireworks, the beer and the cookouts, to be sure. But I do have problems with the propaganda aspect of July 4. I love this country as much as anyone, but I don’t dig the philosophy embodied in the song “God Bless The USA,” which was popularized during the Reagan years and has been used ever since to accompany every Republican military excursion into foreign lands.
Upon closer analysis, the song gets even creepier. The lyrics start with the narrator saying that if tomorrow everything he’d worked for all his life was gone and he had to start from scratch with just his family — a very real scenario after 25 years of conservative economics — he wouldn’t be sad at all.
In fact, the song goes, “I’d thank my lucky stars to be living here today.” Let me get this straight. Your employer sends your job to India for a tax break and you’re happy? Why? “Because the flag still stands for freedom and they can’t take that away.”
Granted, the American flag is a beautiful one. And the concept of freedom is marvelous. But, like religion, the flag has been used to justify any number of shameful and disgraceful activities over the years. Just in the past 50 years, the flag flew proudly as government officials worked with mobsters to plan assassinations. The soldiers who tortured inmates at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Grahib all wore flag emblems on their uniforms.
I prefer to think of freedom in other ways, but if you want to objectify a piece of cloth and have it embody liberty, that’s fine with me.
The real problem I have with the song is the chorus:
And I’m proud to be an American
Where at least I know I’m free
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me.
Let us parse those four lines. I’m proud to be an American as well, but I’m not quite sure we have the freedom the song would seem to indicate. Leaving aside that argument for a moment, let’s pay attention to those last two lines, because I think they go to the heart of what disturbs me so much about the conservative Republican meaning of patriotism.
“I won’t forget the men who died / Who gave that right to me.” While the sacrifice of fallen American soldiers is indeed something to honor, I take vigorous exception to the implication of that phrase.
It seems to say that the only way to ensure our freedom is for soldiers to die in combat for America. More than that, without the deaths of soldiers, we wouldn’t even have those rights. Therefore, the logic goes, all of our freedom stems from dead soldiers and more must die for us to be free.
Particularly in the past 15 years, but extending back to the Korean War, our soldiers have been used not in defense of America but as pawns for the fulfillment of an aggressive foreign policy. With no disrespect intended toward Vietnam or Gulf War veterans, it can hardly be argued that the soldiers who perished did so to preserve the Bill of Rights.
They died because politicians like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush wanted to send a signal to other adversaries and, not coincidentally, make billionaires out of the war industry.
To assert that the death of soldiers in combat is the only thing keeping us from a dictatorship is to dishonor the soldiers as well as our country.
Freedom is not bestowed by the soldiers, or even from the government. In America, freedom is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, that remarkable document that asserts freedom of speech and religion and equal protection under the law to every human being.
But it goes even deeper than that. I prefer the following line of reasoning.
“The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.”
That’s the one statement from George W. Bush with which I agree wholeheartedly. Ultimately, freedom extends not from the state or the military; it is, like everything else on this earth, a gift from the Almighty.
I am proud of many things about America: the way we unselfishly rebuilt Europe after World War II and the way in which a peaceful revolution in the 1960s extended freedom to black Americans, just to mention two.
We are rightly prideful of our country. But please don’t confuse the chaos of war with the chimes of freedom. There are many evil people who are hoping that you do.