• 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.

    Fortunately
    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.

    Patriotism
    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
    obeys.

    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.

    Patriotism
    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.

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

    June
    10, 2003

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


         

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