The Atlantic Masthead sent out an email with comments by some veterans on patriotism. As a Vietnam veteran, I think they ring true.
After returning from Vietnam, Bernard Seiler realized Americans have very different definitions of patriotism.
After I finished my tour in Vietnam, I flew to San Francisco. As I got off the plane, a protestor of the Vietnam War approached me, hurling insults. As he got closer, he hocked a loogie at me. This is a stark example of how divergent our views of patriotism can be. Later, when looking for my first job after leaving the military, I was told by multiple recruiters that it was a shame that I had wasted three years in the service because it made me a less desirable candidate for jobs. The fact that I had managed over 50 people in combat situations had no relevance to them. Nothing prepared me for that level of hostility.
Today, communities are still very divided on definitions of patriotism. At least now people are less inclined to blame the warrior for a conflict. However, this has presented some issues as well. For example, I now hear on a regular basis, “Thank you for your service.” I know it’s meant well, but I find it to be a hollow comment. You can see in the eyes of the person saying it. They feel uncomfortable. They’re more mystified by what you’ve done than grateful for it. The saying serves to reconcile their definition of patriotism with yours. Even more rankling to me is when I hear someone in the media using a cliché like, “the fallen soldier who died for our freedoms.” It may be true on one level, but my experience tells me that it’s much more complicated than that. The soldier likely died for his comrades—his brothers and sisters in arms—rather than the more collective, “our freedoms.”
Over the 20 years he spent in the Marine Corps, John Daily never felt like American values were under threat from enemies abroad.
I never once woke up in the morning and thought, “I’m going to protect the rights of my fellow American citizens today—the right of the free press, or the right of free speech.” I don’t think those rights have been threatened from without for a considerable amount of time. I see bumper stickers every day that say, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.” You don’t need to thank me for that. I don’t think I had a whole lot to do with that. The problem, I think, is not that our rights are being threatened from without. It’s that the right of free speech is being threatened from within—from both sides of the political spectrum. If I was to fight for a right, I’d fight to make sure we had our opinions heard, especially opinions that are different from our own.
Michael McNeill worries that too many Americans have an excessively macho conception of patriotism.
I’d love to say that I joined the military because of 9/11, but it was mostly to have a steady job and learn a foreign language. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, there began to emerge an image of the 21st century American soldier: Sun-beaten man, mismatched camo, armed with every tactical weapon he needed to burst down the door and take down the terrorists. This image was being imitated by civilians across the country—with a special emphasis on the weapons. I dismissed this because most of the soldiers I knew were just footsore 19-year-olds who just wanted to go home and alternately watch porn and South Park until four in the morning. But I shouldn’t have dismissed them because the image just further solidified. And soon this image became the quintessential image of patriotism. But it was all image, no substance. My own version of patriotism, which is more about civic duty and shared American values of civil liberty is often discounted as un-American.