Heinz, Adolf, and Poland: Why Johnny Fights

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In my daily
snowstorm of email I find furious appeals to patriotism, usually
addressed to large lists of recipients. The writers invoke The Founding
Fathers, urge fealty, and counsel solidarity with all the whoop
and holler of a camp meeting. I’m puzzled. Why is patriotism thought
to be a virtue? It seems to me a scourge.

Judging by
my mail, patriotism has little to do with a fondness for one’s country.
Yes, many Americans like America. They reflect affectionately on
Arizona’s painted deserts and the wooded hollows of Tennessee, on
the music of Appalachia and New Orleans, the rude vigor and brashness
of a remarkable people, the rich accents of Brooklyn and Mississippi,
all the things that give a sense of home and attachment in a large
world. But they do not want blood. They speak quietly. Apparently
they are not patriots. They do not use the word.

The email patriots
are different. They growl and threaten, and seem less to appreciate
their country than to hate others. They remind me of nothing so
much as bar-room drunks looking for a fight. Their letters seethe
with bitterness and begin with denunciations of liberals and the
communist media (by which they mean any that fail to agree with
them). They don’t eat French fries. They hate. They would make,
and in fact did make, excellent Nazis.

The difference
between patriotism and love of country seems to be the difference
between an inward-looking fondness and an outward-looking hostility.
The email patriots regard any disagreement as treachery and softness.
To doubt the wisdom or necessity of a war, any war, is treason;
any inclination to think for oneself is evidence of being in the
enemy’s camp.

This is everywhere
the rule. There were Japanese who thought that attacking the United
States was not a conspicuously bright idea. They were squelched
by patriots. GIs loved duty in Tokyo.

Malignant patriotism
explains the attack, by a large heavily armed industrial power,
against a weak and bedraggled nation so helpless as to be conquered
in weeks. I refer of course to the Nazi assault on Poland. The Wehrmacht,
like the Imperial Japanese Army, was awash in patriotism. It is
in large part why they fought so well. No emotion is more usefully
manipulable by governments with misbehavior in mind.

The connections
among patriotism, military service, Christianity, and morality are
tangled and fascinating. The first two appear to me to be incompatible
with the second two. Consider Heinz, a German youth joining his
armed forces in, say, 1937. Enlisting was then, as now, a patriotic
thing to do. Heinz was probably a decent sort. Most people are.
He probably had little interest in Poland, a minor creation which
posed no threat to Germany. He liked beer and girls.

Then, come
September of 1939, he found himself butchering Poles. The war had
nothing to do with defense. The German attack was savage, unprovoked,
and murderous. And why was Heinz killing people he didn’t know?
Because his government told him it was his patriotic duty. Which
is to say that being in the Wehrmacht meant forfeiting moral independence
to a dark squatty effeminate Aryan blond superman. Oh good.

It is curious.
If Heinz had decided to kill Poles as a free-lance, he would have
been called a mass-murderer, hanged, and had a movie made about
him. If as a soldier he had decided not to kill Poles, having
no reason to kill them, he might have been shot as a mutineer. But
when he killed them unreflectingly because he had been told to,
he became a minor national hero and, if extraordinarily effective
in the killing, received a medal.

for Adolf, refusals on moral grounds to kill the enemy, any enemy,
are rare. In human affairs, morality is more than window-dressing,
but not much more. Lust, hormones, and the pack instinct take easy
precedence. Thus armies seldom say en masse, “No. We think
it the wrong thing to do.”

When the war
goes badly, patriotism becomes compulsory. Heinz, driving toward
Stalingrad, did not have the choice of changing his mind. Deserters
tend to be shot. Enormous moral suasion serves to quell reluctance
to die. Going against the herd is unpleasant. Governments understand
this well.

often needs propping, and gets it. Conscription serves to make fight
those who otherwise wouldn’t. (The ancient Persians used whips to
force unwilling soldiers to go forward. Firing squads work as well,
and do not tire the arm.) Societies punish draft-dodgers, except
in the case of Republican presidents, and revile conscientious objectors
as cowards, traitors, and homosexuals. Deserters particularly suffer
heavy punishment, because if soldiers in a long nasty war could
escape without penalty, most would.

Heinz, being
German, was probably a Christian. Soldiers often believe themselves
to be Christians. There is remarkably little in the New Testament
to encourage aggressive slaughter, yet Christian countries have
regularly attacked everybody within reach. (So of course have most
other countries.)

Heinz cannot
serve two masters. Either he puts the authority of religion above
that of government, or he kills anyone he is told to kill. As a
rule he compartmentalizes, accepts official justifications, and

Why does a
coalition of Christian nations send troops at great expense to the
Middle East to attack a Moslem nation offering no threat? I refer
of course to the Crusades. The answer is simple: Humankind has a
profound instinct to form warring groups. Crips and Bloods, Redskins
and Cowboys, Catholics and Protestants, liberals and conservatives.
Because a thin veneer of reason floats like pond scum on our instincts,
we invent tolerable rationalizations: We must take the Holy Lands
from the infidels. God says so.

In Chicago,
young males form nations, which they call by such names as the Vice
Lords, the P Stones, the Black Gangster Disciples. They have ministers,
pomp and circumstance, hierarchy, and intense loyalty to the gang.
They wear uniforms of sorts – hats with bills pointed to the
left or right, chosen colors – and they fight for turf, which
is empire measured in blocks. The gangs of Chicago are international
relations writ small.

is most dangerous when mixed with religion. Both give high purpose
to low behavior. Worst are the fundamentalists, the Ayatollahs and
born-agains, the various Christian Wahabis and Islamic Cromwells.
A fundamentalist believes that any idea wandering into his mind
comes from On High. Actually he is making it up. He confuses himself
with God, which is not a good thing when he is a bit loony to begin
with. Fundamentalists usually are.

wrong, but unfamiliar with doubt. I can’t think of a better ground
for policy.

10, 2003

Reed [send him mail]
is author of Nekkid
in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well


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