Thoughts on Patriotism and War

Scene from the movie, "Platoon"

Scene from the movie, “Platoon”

Richard Sahn

The other night I was watching the movie “Platoon” on television. An American soldier was killed every few seconds while the platoon was immersed in a firefight with North Vietnamese regulars near the Cambodian border. In one scene the body of a dead GI was used as a shield as bullets were being fired at his body. Indeed, the horrors of combat were not minimized by the screenplay writers and director. After the carnage bodies of GI were bulldozed into a mass grave.  Both sides were undoubtedly under orders to kill anything that moved if it looked like the enemy.

As a professor at a rural college in Pennsylvania I see students, male and female, walking around the campus or in class in their camouflage uniforms. They may be in the Army reserves or National Guard on their way to or from exercises at the local armory.  “Platoon” reminded me of the death toll, the suffering, the serious injuries which produced chronic medical problems that were the result of the war in Vietnam.  Do these reservists and weekend warriors know what they could be in for if they are eventually sent on combat missions?

Of course most of them don’t really know. They are not students of military history nor have they watched graphic combat movies with an eye toward understanding the horrors of war. But they know that serving in the military will pay the bills and, if they’re male, will make it easier to get dates. Then I think of what Robert S. McNamara, the former secretary of defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and who was the principle architect of the Vietnam War wrote in his memoirs:  that the war in Vietnam was essentially a mistake, that it was unnecessary.  Too late for the GIs who were killed or wounded in that war.

Yet so many young men were forced, primarily through the draft, to fight a war that had no real purpose except for the belief that it was un-American to lose (prolonging that war was certainly no loss for defense contractors). Today, it’s not the draft but often economic necessity that compels college age people to join the military. And it is also a sense of patriotic pride that justifies any reason for engaging in future combat.  Combine a shortage of jobs with incentives and patriotism and you have plenty of “volunteers” for the all-volunteer military.

Patriotism, often a major factor why young people join the military, gets mixed reviews from me. If patriotism means concern for the safety, protection, and well being of one’s countrymen I’m all for it. If it simply means love of country in the abstract, the kind of “love” that’s displayed during patriotic holidays I have a problem. Here patriotism is either culturally acquired—the process sociologists call socialization—or, as Samuel Johnson, once put it, “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” What Johnson meant, of course, was that patriotism eliminated the gray areas of social life, of reality itself, reducing existence to the lowest common denominator: my country right or wrong. All cognitive dissonance is dispelled. All personal transgressions obliterated.

The image of the GI holding as a shield the corpse of his buddy continues to haunt me.  During the Vietnam War the draft, economic interests, blind obedience (as demonstrated by Stanley Milgram in his obedience to authority experiment at Yale) and the mindless type of patriotism were all responsible for such a scene which had to have occurred more than once during the actual war.

All this in the cause of delusional thinking by political leaders that McNamara alluded to in his book:  Allowing Vietnam to go communist would have an international domino effect, false fears accentuated by the desire of Johnson, General William Westmoreland, and Richard Nixon and those like them never to “lose” a war.

From the pacifist perspective war can never be justified. From the “just war” perspective—my own perspective—war is justified if it’s for purely self-defense. From the perspective of loved ones who suffer the pain of loss—the parents, girlfriends, spouses, children—war is unthinkable no matter what the cause.

Richard Sahn is a Contrary Perspective regular and a professor of sociology.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on Patriotism and War

  1. America’s War on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) taught me the wisdom of the following:

    Patriotism, n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of anyone ambitious to illuminate his name. In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.” — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

    Unfortunately, in the United States of my experience over the last half century, the dominant sociological/political hysteria more properly goes by the name of “nationalism,” not patriotism. As George Orwell explained in his famous essay, Notes on Nationalism:

    “By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

    Without understanding the vital difference between peaceful, defensive “patriotism” and strutting, vainglorious, virulent “nationalism,” one cannot begin to understand the steady, decades-long drift toward oligarchy and crony-corporate crypto-fascism such as that which characterises the United States today. In other words: Warfare Welfare and Make-work Militarism maliciously marketed through Manufactured Mendacity and Managed Mystification. Or, as the Chinese say: “You don’t use good iron to make a nail, and you don’t use a good man to make a soldier.” As I enter the twilight years of my life, I find that the sight of an American in a military uniform makes my skin crawl with fear and loathing. I know the difference between the patriot and the nationalist, even though it seems that most of my fellow countrymen do not.

    • I like to think of patriotism as critical love of country, the idea that no country is perfect, and that you should and must work toward “a more perfect union.”

      Nationalism is uncritical infatuation for one’s country: my country, right or wrong, is beautiful and just and true. Not just infatuation — sometimes it’s lust for country, with all of the issues associated with lust — blindness, aggression, and so on.

  2. Coincidentally, the latest from “Unconditional love of our country is the counterpart of unconditional detachment and even hostility toward other countries. None of us is an exception, and no nation is. The sooner we come to live with this truth as a mundane reality without exceptions, the more grateful other nations will be to live in a world that includes us, among others.” David Bromwich at

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. Nationalism and jingoistic patriotism are scourges.

    I would like to note that according to one 2006 survey, only 38% of new recruits cite anything like patriotism or service to country as their primary motivator for joining up (and the researchers noted that young recruits have incentive to overstate this).

    Clay Bonnyman Evans

  4. My generation has been eulogized as the “Greatest Generation”. I think that is probably “nationalist” talk because we won that war decisively. The term is now being used to lead future generations into believing that we did it out of “patriotism”. Sorry folks. I was in for three years and never once heard anyone say anything except ” I want to get the hell out”. We were in “for the duration” and it was like a life sentence at age 18. And for half a million young Americans it was their life sentence.

    Our political class today, both Republicans and Democrats, hardly lose a breath before voting funds for our perpetual wars as the country sinks inexorably into social and economic disaster. We are facing an election in two weeks and are confronted by these two parties who have brought this disaster upon us. The Democrats seek our support with their main argument being that the Republicans would be worse. The Republicans are quite happy to sit back and let the billionaires spend them into office to carry out their orders. Obama’s lies about bringing “hope and change” and delivering the same old in spades has pulled the rug out from under support or his party. The people will lose either way. We are in a tough situation and there is no clear path out at this point. But hey! Keep your spirits up. After all, we are exceptional Americans.

  5. PLATOON was, of course, directed by a former student at Yale who voluntarily joined the Marines (a.k.a. “The Suck,” “The Crotch” and other terms of endearment used by those inside) and himself saw combat in Vietnam. A gent considered rather controversial, by the name of Oliver Stone. I own the movie on DVD but haven’t watched it in ages, though meaning to. I was rather startled to read Mr. Sahn’s statement about GI corpses being bulldozed into a mass grave. (If they’d been ARVNs, no surprise.) I did not recall this from the movie. Also, at the urging of “b. traven,” not too long ago I read Karl Marlantes’s novel, MATTERHORN. It is a thinly-disguised recounting of his own experiences as a Marine in combat in Vietnam. What is indelibly etched in my mind is how his platoon carried the bloating, decomposing body of one of their comrades endlessly through the rain forest brush in search of a Landing Zone where a chopper could come and retrieve it and pull the surviving grunts out of the muck they’d been stuck in for weeks on end. This is because, in theory, the Marines “never leave a buddy behind,” even if he’s long deceased!! Though this may sound noble on paper, it struck me as nothing less than bizarre and frankly, disgusting, in practice. Soldiers die in wars, folks. Sometimes there’s nothing left to retrieve. Yet people apparently stay in denial of this until they can receive some physical bit of remains or personal property of the deceased. A whole industry arose post-Vietnam to encourage people to believe maybe their sons were being held in POW camps, brutalized by evil guards like those depicted in THE DEER HUNTER. I consider the whole “POW/MIA” movement to be fundamentally racist in nature, and an incitement to hatred against the people who defeated the mighty US War Machine. These “POW/MIA” flags can still be seen today, and any time I see one I feel nothing but revulsion. This mindset, if I can dignify it by such designation, is counterproductive to healing the wounds from that war and plays into the whole “patriotism”-nationalism bulwark of the US policy of Perpetual War. To hell with it, I say!

    US Army, 1967-71

  6. The trouble with the “just war” perspective is that EVERYONE invokes it. EVERYONE claims self defense. Every American war since 1812 has been aggressive, but all we hear about are the defense budget, the secretary of defense, the defense department, etc. ad nauseam.

    • You’re essentially right on the money, P.J. But in days of yore, it was more honestly called “The War Department.” The DOD moniker is a product of The Cold War Era, precisely when Orwell so brilliantly exposed the perversion of language via “1984.” If you’ve never read Mark Twain’s essay “In Defense of General Funston,” I highly recommend you track it down. Twain was one of the great employers of irony in his social satire/criticism. This particular work is an expose of the slaughter by US troops of Filipinos aspiring to independence in the wake of “The War of 1898,” a.k.a. “The Spanish-American War.”

  7. When I enlisted in the U.S. Army right after the Vietnam War, there weren’t many patriots around – or, at least they were keeping a very low profile. I joined for two reasons: 1) a personal desire to honor my father’s service in WWII, and 2) as a solution to the deep insecurity I was feeling at the time. My fellow soldiers were serving for a variety of reasons. Some wanted to learn an occupational skill, or saw the military as a career opportunity. Some just didn’t know what else to do with their lives. A few were convicted criminals trying to avoid prison. Many had joined simply to escape poverty. A very select minority were aggressive, highly-motivated “lifers” who probably couldn’t cope well in civil society.

    I’m not sure if the current composition of the military is similar, but I’d bet that there is still great diversity in the reasons for enlistment.

    • I would venture to say the mix of reasons for enlistment these days is pretty close to what you describe, Robert. The US economy has been screwed-up since the Nixon regime, and this accelerated as industrial jobs were outsourced after relations with China warmed up (again, this process was set in motion under Nixon). This led to what we call “the economic draft” in the wake of direct conscription being suspended. And of course, since 9/11, naive young men and women thought they were doing something to help their nation by joining up. Quite a reward Pat Tillman got for his “patriotism.” I was amazed to learn that one of my fellow students in advanced medic training, a polite, soft-spoken chap, was one of those given a choice by a magistrate: “Army or jail.” You never know who you’re dealing with unless they open up to you.

  8. Orwell was so right with his “War is Peace” slogan. Americans are told we must constantly be at war to protect America and to preserve the peace. We must constantly be building weapons, selling weapons, building bases overseas, deploying troops, sending in drones, launching Special Forces raids, all in the cause of eventual peace. Of course, all of these actions spawn new tensions and new wars, but what the heck, right? We were “defending” America against “barbarians.”

    Orwell just put it plainly with his “War is Peace” slogan. Perhaps too plainly in the sense that people dismiss his insights as exaggerated or satirical when they were actually spot on.

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