The culture of patriotism
I read a very sad op-ed at WaPo, written by a parent mourning his son's death in Iraq as a meaingless waste. I don't believe that personal grief gives one any greater or lesser insights into strategic thinking, so I won't delve into (and, indeed, am incapable of delving into) the rights and wrongs of the war that the parent places at the forefront of the op-ed. (That is, the op-ed takes the Sheehan-esque position that the war is wrong, and therefore the child's death pointless.) The letter actually got me thinking of something quite different, which is the popular culture surrounding war. In past wars (that is, prior to Vietnam), a soldier's death was treated by popular culture as a sanctified sacrifice for the good of the country. Don't take my word for it. Read the lyrics for this hit song of 1862, written by Stephen Foster:
Was My Brother in the Battle? Tell me, tell me weary soldier From the rude and stirring wars, Was my brother in the battle Where you gained those noble scars? He was ever brave and valiant, And I knew he never fled, Was his name among the wounded Or numbered with the dead? Was my brother in the battle, When the tide of war ran high? You would know him in a thousand By his dark and flashing eye. Chorus: Tell me, tell me weary soldier, Will he never come again, Did he suffer mid' the wounded Or die among the slain? Was my brother in the battle When the noble Highland host Were so wrongfully outnumbered On the Carolina coast; Dd he struggle for the Union 'mid the thunder and the rain, Till he fell among the brave On a bleak Virginia plain? Oh, I'm sure that he was dauntless And his courage ne'er would lag While contending for the honor Of our dear and cherished flag. Was my brother in the battle When the flag of Erin came To the rescue of our banner And protection of our fame, While the fleet from off the waters Poured out terror and dismay Till the bold and erring foe Fell like leaves on an Autumn day? When the bugle called to the battle And the cannon deeply roared, Oh! I wish I could have seen him Draw his sharp and glittering sword. Tell me, tell me weary soldier, will he never come again, Did he suffer 'mid the wounded or die among the slain?What I wondered -- and it's a pretty unanswerable question -- is whether a parent's incredible loss is easier to bear when there is a culture of patriotism that imbues the child's death with meaning, rather than the culture we have now, which leaves the parent believing it to be a pointless loss? Or is the loss of a child always too painful to have some greater meaning attributed to it? I don't know. My children are little and alive, and for that I am grateful.