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Patriotism and Loyalty: America's Volatile Mixture

By Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

 

“If the president goes to the American people and wraps himself in the American flag and lets Congress wrap itself in the white flag of surrender, the president will win.

“When it comes to foreign policy, the president of the United States today has as much freedom as he ever had – if only he would use it boldly. But he has to go to the people to use it. He has to tap the vein not only of patriotism but of nationalism, which is very strong in the American public. Look at the public response to the American landings in Grenada. If the president had waited to consult with Congress before acting there, Lord knows what would have happened. The media were 95 percent certain that the American public would be against sending troops to Grenada. But once it was done, there was 95 percent public approval. The American people had never heard of Grenada. There was no reason why they should have. The reason we gave for the intervention – the risk to American medical students there – was phony, but the reaction of the American people was absolutely and overwhelmingly favorable. They had no idea what was going on, but they backed the president. They always will.” [Irving Kristol, “The Fettered Presidency: Legal Constraints on the Executive Branch,” 1989]

 

Irving Kristol's comments, offered at a conference in April 1988, read cynically today, partly because Kristol himself has been among the leading neo-conservative political analysts, architects of the Bush administration's muscular and interventionist foreign policy. But his assessment of American gullibility is alarming as well because some sixteen years later, the American people seem to have been lied to again, regarding the justification for invading Iraq.

The U.S. people, in general, have supported the invasion, despite a growing and increasingly profound skepticism about the president's reasons for it. It's a puzzling phenomenon, and the explanation lies in the volatile mixture of patriotism and loyalty.

Kristol's commentary, however, illustrates one of the curious facts about Americans and the Iraq war: the intertwining of both doubt and support. The U.S. people, in general, have supported the invasion, despite a growing and increasingly profound skepticism about the president's reasons for it. It's a puzzling phenomenon, and the explanation lies in the volatile mixture of patriotism and loyalty. But that combustible combination also explains why the Bush administration ultimately cannot control America's judgments about the war.

For most Americans, including the country's Christians, allegiance to government is their strongest and deepest bond. In the mainline Protestant churches and in the Catholic Church, most believers see themselves as enjoying a fortunate circumstance in which their commitment to God rarely conflicts with fealty to Caesar. For most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, those kingdoms are contiguous, or, perhaps, simultaneous in time and space; those two allegiances are one and the same. For both, it is the American military that will defend and protect our earthly existence, our earthly standards of living, and our state's freedoms. That's why the trumpet's call of national defense will prod most of us to stand and salute. That deep-rooted sense of allegiance to the government, I suspect, is thoroughly understood by policy-makers in Washington.

But life in wartime also evokes profound feelings of loyalty.

Loyalty has always as struck me as one of the most mysterious of virtues. Loyalty is the glue of organizations. It is exhilarating, as well as seductive, because demonstrating it deepens relationships and provides a profound sense of satisfaction. Loyalty is affirming and builds self-esteem. Displaying it usually earns the admiration of one's peers, family, or fellows in a group. Loyalty may also ask for self-sacrifice, an act that testifies to one's maturity, responsibility, and acknowledgment of a debt toward others. Loyalty is so powerful that it can persuade one to sacrifice his or her life. Perhaps its greatest appeal is that that brand of loyalty is rewarded with a highly refined, almost pure, form of respect that can last a lifetime, or longer.

Patriotism appears to be thoroughly ingrained in the U.S. population, but just as ingrained is a particular loyalty that joins soldiers not only to other soldiers but also to their family members and other loved ones. Loyalty is relational and bound up in other persons. Perhaps its most eloquent descriptions are found in the Gospel of John. Shortly after Jesus explains to the crowd his relationship to the Father, the people turn away. Jesus then asks his twelve followers, “ ‘Do you also wish to go away?' Simon Peter answered, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God' ” (John 6:67-69). And Jesus' long missive at the end of John's Gospel strikes me as not only a tribute to discipleship and faithfulness but loyalty as well.

While loyalty is rooted in a personal bond, a citizen's allegiance is at least to some degree conceptual; abstract, perhaps. As the U.S. war in Iraq and its plans for that country have deteriorated, the Bush administration has confused patriotism with loyalty.

While loyalty is rooted in a personal bond, a citizen's allegiance is at least to some degree conceptual; abstract, perhaps. As the U.S. war in Iraq and its plans for that country have deteriorated, the Bush administration has confused patriotism with loyalty. As both civilian and military deaths have mounted and as military intelligence, planning and conduct of the war have been shown to be rife with mistakes and reversals, the president has sought to buttress his political goals for the new Iraq regime by using the personal language of staying the course, not giving up, not backing down, not running from a fight, not being unfaithful. Intentionally or not, the president has increasingly sought to manipulate the value-laden language of admirable personal qualities for a very partisan foreign policy objective.

I believe that the American people are turning away, slowly but surely, from the president's Iraq experiment, and from his leadership, because they now see that their loyalty has been exploited for a cause born amid lies and deception. That cause has required the sacrifice of their loved ones, and it has been accompanied by humiliation, degradation, and self-abasement. The American people now have a very good idea of what's been going on.

 

Joseph Wakelee-Lynch is a Witness contributing editor, and his regular online column is The View from Sardis . He lives in Long Beach, Calif., and may be reached by email at wakeleelynch@earthlink.net .