Monday, March 12, 2012

The Obligation Lie

Every once in awhile, patriotism enrages me. This is not because I don't believe in supporting and loving one's country, but it is because I think people are fooled into accepting a bureaucratically convenient definition of patriotism.

I was watching a few music videos this morning, and a song came on -- Keith Urban, who I have mentioned before, I have really come to respect as a musician. In fact, I really like this song a lot. But it still enrages me. I'll tell you why after you watch it:

Sometimes, I feel like I'm being ripped, two ways. Here is a earnest performance of a song about sacrifice for the ones one loves. It paraphrases biblical wisdom: "No greater gift has man than to lay down his life for love." I buy that -- I always have.

But what enrages me is that governments package political, monetary and, sometimes, religious agendas as a fight for those we love -- they sell it as an obligation to young people who are at the perfect age to eat it up; to feel the burning in the heart that calls them to do something great; something that will tell the future world they are not just "another brick in the wall."

Urban is singing in earnest -- I have no doubt about that. And he is right that there is nothing more beautiful and profound than making what is commonly called "the ultimate sacrifice" for those we love.

But is that what dying in a desert, thousands of miles from your children and spouse, is? -- dying for those we love? I think it is more about dying for those who tricked us into not questioning whether or not it really is what it is packaged to to be. (It might be; it might not be. If we forget that, we're lost.)

I say this to my own family, in front of the anyone in the world who cares to read this:

Karen, boys -- There is no fear that outweighs my love for you. I would slowly walk into a fire for you; I would suffer torture and unimaginable pain to preserve your freedom and happiness; I would give up my every aspiration and dream for any one of you in a fragment of a second; I would fight viciously against any threat to your well-being. My life means absolutely nothing to me if it is the only thing that stands between you and your freedom and joy. I only have one stipulation: that the threat be real; that the sacrifice I make really affect you. I'm not going to implicitly believe that any war my government wages has a clear connection to your happiness and well-being.

I get the counter argument: we fight wars in foreign lands in order to cut off the possibility of a threat at home. Sorry -- for me, that's just not good enough -- not when large numbers of people in the country once believed that Vietnam was a necessary "conflict."

Urban has a line in the song about leaving an unborn child to go fight. No effing way. I'm sorry. I have respect for the choices of others, but my place as a father is at my pregnant wife's side. No -- not as a father. My place as a human is at her side. The only soldiering I will do is to stand over my baby's crib and to keep him safe from physical attacks and from the insidious weapon of groupthink lies.

Young men are leaving behind young wives. Their children are growing up without dads. It's not okay and it never was okay.

The tragedy of all this is illustrated in Urban's lyrics, which I think he delivers without irony: "Maybe you don't understand; I don't understand it all myself." How can anyone fight to the death for something he doesn't understand? How can he put the lives of his family on the razor's edge in order to fulfill an obligation the social and political machine has brainwashed him into believing is implicit simply because he was born between certain borders?

What rings even more spooky are the lines: "You don't think about right; you don't think about wrong you just do what you gotta do to defend your own." Okay -- as long as you're sure that the cause and your death are worth the dismissal of consideration of wrong and right -- but that's a tall order.

I know -- it's just a pop song. Is it? To me, as a teenager, it would have been a hell of a motivator to "do the right thing." Songs and movies are little windows with clearly defined frames. Life is not. The young mind confuses the two, quite often.

I don't have any problem with Urban's  intent. As I said, I think he is speaking in earnest -- that he has bought into the implicit obligation lie that a lot of people see as patriotism. What I have a problem with is that he is passing it down the line to impressionable young people, fully convinced it's for the better.

I've said it before: I respect those who have died in the name of freedom. I just think it is criminal that some have died in the name of freedom when that freedom should really have been called "agenda."

My advice to young people considering going off to war: listen to the arguments for why you should do it. Go ahead. But before you sign off on war, look into the eyes of your wife; your husband; your baby; your son or daughter. Hug them; kiss them -- feel the energy they ignite in your heart and that you ignite in theirs. Then, decide whether you want to believe what you feel or whether you want to believe the shaded truths of a bunch of power hungry liars in suits. You have to see clearly after that. Sometimes the truth is more of a feeling than an idea.

Freedom is worth dying for, but every war isn't about freedom.

Your loved-ones are worth dying for, but every war is not about your loved-ones.

We have many wonderful freedoms in America. Sometimes, not fighting is the way to preserve them.


  1. As I've mentioned here before, I'm a soldier's daughter and soldier's wife, and I'm also a federal civil servant (one of those "liars in suits") so take my opinion for what it's worth, but I have to take issue with some of what you say here.

    Obviously, not every war is just; not every soldier is noble. But by the same token, they're not necessarily unjust or ignoble, either. Not everyone who joins the armed forces does it to "protect their own," or without thinking about right and wrong (from my perspective, that's an idiotic lyric; a lot of "support the troops" songs have that problem).

    Sometimes someone sacrifices something so that others may keep it.

    My grandfather missed the birth of my mother because he was on active duty with the Coast Guard during World War II. Under the circumstances I find it really hard to fault him as a man and a father.

    1. As I said, 'nora -- I respect the choices of others. My problem is when idiotic lyrics like the ones above contribute to blind acceptance of the idea that every war is a fight for the well-being of one's loved ones. "Obviously, not every war is just; not every soldier is noble." You're right. The problem is that this is not obvious to many young people. That
      is what I'm railing against, here: propaganda, really; manipulation of the young and passionate heart. "Sometimes someone sacrifices something so that others may keep it." Yes -- "sometimes" being the operative word. The problem occurs when the line gets sold that sacrifice is an immediate obligation of citizenship. The problem is that you are smarter than the average bear; you see the varied aspects of war; the average bear makes uninformed decisions and is preyed upon by those in charge. That's wrong, to me.

      My dad was in the army and my (beloved) great uncle was part of the Normandy landing. I'm deeply proud to say that. And, in light of the circumstances of WW2, I might have volunteered, myself, knowing the direct impact that Hitler would have had on my own family had he spread his projected empire to our shores. If there is enough of a reason, I would leave my family, as I said in my "letter" to my family above: "I only have one stipulation: that the threat be real; that the sacrifice I make really affect you. I'm not going to implicitly believe that any war my government wages has a clear connection to your happiness and well-being."

      That simply does not include the wild goose chases for WMDs in foreign lands.

      The other situation, of course, is the career military man (or woman). If one is a military person and one gets married, there is an understood set of circumstances: if war comes... This is much different than a young man being convinced to join the military because of commercials and country songs. That's my problem.

      And not everyone who works for the government is a liar, but we sure see enough of the governmental movers and shakers painting pictures we're expected to step into.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. bah, I can't type. Trying again:

      "wild goose chases for WMDs"

      It's easy to call it that now, of course, but how many of us didn't know it was a wild goose chase at the time? Even Colin Powell, who was in a better position to know than anyone, thought they were there.

      Sometimes the sacrifice must be made -- only sometimes, sure, but there must always be people willing to make it, if necessary.

      If your argument is only "there's more to it than country songs and recruitment ads" then I agree with that. But that wasn't the vibe I got.

      You'll have to forgive me for being hypersensitive to comments about liars in suits. In the current climate, I'm denied even the dignity of being a civil servant ("federal worker" is the nicest thing I've been called recently).

  2. "Gah," is right, 'nora -- I wrote you a long reply yesterday and then brushed the "escape" button and lost it.

    Anyhoo, with the WMD thing, I get that there was reason to believe they were there. But I can't make that work out to a fair balance for the lives of the kids who died over there.

    Sacrifices do need to be made -- but, as I said, only (in my case) if the cause is clear and valid. The problem is, the causes never seem to be clear anymore. Maybe if the cause needs to be explained in a graduate level political science class it isn't worth dying for. Hitler needed to be stopped. That was clear. Your grandfather and my great uncles knew that. Hussein was evil -- but was he Hitler? I'm more worried about Iran than I ever was about Iraq.

    As far as the "liars in suits" I certainly was not referring to all civil servants -- I was referring to the ones who have the power to make the calls -- the ones who have the muscle to push political agendas. It would be kind of dumb to blame anyone who works in a governmental office for the deaths of young people.

    I have to say -- you got my head churning, though, in regard to the Coast Guard issue. The Coast Guard is a branch of the military I can certainly get behind in all circumstances. In a way, their cause is alway clear and valid.

    (On a side-note, I have always been fascinated -- and a little horrified -- by the presence of German subs off of the East coast during WW2. Read a fascinating book about some divers and their discovery of a sunken U-boat. Trying to think of the title...)

  3. Hi Chris,

    Yes, I get what you're saying. I guess I'm in disagreement in some points because I know people -- like my dad, close family friends, a cousin -- who were (or are) in the "bad" wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) and I don't feel like their service is ... stupid? less honourable? less meaningful? wasted? ... because the wars were not perfect examples of just war, or because the suits made bad calls or had nefarious motives.

    Using my dad as an example -- he joined the Army in 1962, out of ROTC. He did not join because he thought he'd be a bad American if he didn't, or because he got suckered in by the scholarship money; he joined because he wanted to join the Army. He loved his country and felt like the best thing he could do with his life was to serve it in the Army. He knew there was a chance he'd be called on to fight, and maybe die. He did serve two tours in Vietnam. Was he happy with how all that worked out? No. But he stayed in until his health failed him because he thought he could do more good in the Army than complaining about it from the outside.

    I don't know if you could say he made a big difference at a policy level, but I know he mattered to the people he served with. His staff sergeant and others told me that they credited him with helping bring many of them home alive.

    Now, I agree absolutely that young people who join the armed services should understand what they're taking on -- including the risks of death, disablement, and bad politics. Life in the service is a big commitment and it's not for everyone. But we do always need the people who are willing to accept that commitment.

    1. Actually, one of the things I put into my first response that I deleted just came back to me: People who join and make the military their career are a different story. Marry a military person, and it goes how it goes -- you accept that looming danger; the commitment has been made, and, to me, that is very honorable, indeed. Those who join based on their steadfast commitment to the service of others -- how coudl you criticize that? But when kids sign up because they think it will be like a movie...we have problems.

      If you get a chance to check out today's post, insert your grandfather into the paragraph based on my uncle Vince and my point might become clearer...

      "I guess I'm in disagreement in some points because I know people -- like my dad, close family friends, a cousin -- who were (or are) in the "bad" wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) and I don't feel like their service is ... stupid? less honourable? less meaningful? wasted? ... because the wars were not perfect examples of just war, or because the suits made bad calls or had nefarious motives."

      Stupid is as stupid does, as Forrest Gump once said. Joining any fight is only as stupid as the reasons for which one joined. I've never been against joining -- just joining without good reasons. That's all I have ever maintained: kids get fooled by liars and join and either lose their lives or their minds. That's bad. But making an informed decision and decideing to serve is beyond honorable -- it is heroic.

    2. If kids are signing up because they think it'll be like a movie, the movie they should watch is 'Jarhead'(based on the book of the same title). My husband tells me it's the most accurate depiction of what Desert Storm was really like. And it's not pretty.

      Thinking about it further, I'm not sure the problem is the nefarious guys in the suits and their lies, or overzealous recruiters (who have, after all, made the commitment themselves) so much as the well-intentioned but uninformed sorts. All of which I read as part of a backlash against the utter lack of support Vietnam vets got from the public. That backlash is entirely merited, but the weepy songs about heroism are an unfortunate manifestation of it.

      And even so, they do serve a certain purpose ... for veterans, the guys who made the commitment and don't always feel appreciated. My husband likes many of those songs (though his tastes run more to Dropkick Murphys 'Far Away Coast') ... but he also tells people to read Jarhead.

    3. I remember my uncle's stories about D-Day and was blown away by the depiction in Saving Private Ryan, in terms of how close it was to his stories. I'm for depicting reality. I want my kids to see war movies that are as realistic as possible -- but, as a guy with no experience in war, it's hard to pick them. I do know I will start them with Private Ryan. I'll have to check out Jarhead.