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Elizabeth on My Country Right or Wrong

I think it was during the late 1960s or the early 1970s that I first saw two bumper stickers that gave me pause. One declared America: Love it or Leave it. The other read My Country Right or Wrong. As I recall, what prompted the creation of these stickers was the war in Vietnam. Some horrible details connected to that war had recently been revealed, and the revelations depicted actions by American soldiers that begged U.S. citizens to consider who we were becoming as a nation. But not everyone wanted to engage in that kind of introspection during the Vietnam War, despite the disclosure of activities that were summarized by one John Smail, a squad leader in the third platoon of Charlie Company. Smail said to Seymour H. Hersh at the time: “That’s an everyday affair. You can nail just about everybody on that—at least once. The guys are human, man.”

Seymour H. Hersh was doing an investigative report into an incident that ultimately became known as the My Lai Massacre. My Lai was a village in Vietnam. The massacre consisted of the systematic rape, shooting, and murder of unarmed villagers by U.S. troops. These villagers comprised old men, women, and children. Although accounts varied on how many people were killed in My Lai on March 16, 1968—the accounts were between 109 and 567—the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division settled on 347. A full account of the massacre became a sensational story in Life magazine twenty-one months later, complete with pictures taken that day. Anyone reading this document that I’m writing can also delve into that black moment in our nation’s history by looking at Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (pages 103-105 in the hardbound edition). The full facts—which, because of their graphic nature, I will not include here—are deeply disturbing. They make any person of conscience lift head to heaven and howl. And they were perpetrated by Americans. By American soldiers. On civilians. Some of these civilians on whom the outrages were perpetrated were mere young girls.

The fact that this miserable moment in the history of our country came to light is largely due to the persistent letters to Washington written by helicopter door gunner Ronald L. Ridenhour who was among the first to fly over the village of My Lai in the aftermath of the massacre. His initial view was of a dead body: “It was a woman,” Ridenhour said. “She was spread-eagled, as if on display. She had an 11th Brigade patch between her legs—as if it were some type of display, some badge of honor.”

There’s far more information available on this massacre. I give what little I’ve given to you in this paper not because I wish to sicken, outrage, offend, or startle, but rather because it serves as an illustration of a point I wish to make: Sometimes great nations take a wrong turn. Sometimes great nations are simply wrong. If we as citizens of one of those great nations blind ourselves to this fact by adopting slogans like My County Right or Wrong, or America: Love it or Leave it or in the more recent appalling words of vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, “We’re America. We don’t apologize,” then who is left to monitor our actions, to draw lines in the sand, and to shout “Enough!” The willingness to do just that is, I believe, the absolute definition of patriotism, for it exemplifies the courage to stand up for and insist upon a moral code that should lie at the heart of every country.
I wonder if Americans of thought can agree that there have been times in our history when we as a nation have done great wrong. Consider the following:

     1). Slavery may have been brought to us courtesy of Great Britain under whose dominion we were when the practice of buying and selling human beings was introduced onto our shores, but we continued the practice for nearly 100 years after we declared, fought for, and won our independence from Great Britain.

     2). Native Americans had lived in North America for centuries before European settlers—our ancestors—arrived. Did the subsequent embracing of a “manifest destiny” that required the “removal” of tribes of native people actually represent the better side of our country?

     3). Japanese Americans were moved off their properties and held in guarded camps during World War II because the U.S. was in a war against the Japanese. I wonder if anyone has ever found it a point to question that, during this same period of our history, similar imprisonments were not foisted upon German Americans or Italian Americans although the U.S. was fighting wars against Germany and Italy, too.

     4). The only weapon of mass destruction ever used by one country against another was used by the United States. This weapon was used not once—in which case one might assume the point had been fairly well made—but twice during World War II. First upon Hiroshima and then, three days later, upon Nagasaki the United States dropped an atomic bomb. Over two hundred thousand people died.

     5). Until the 1960s the southern states of America employed a system of segregation that deliberately kept African Americans in a position of receiving less of everything U.S. society had to offer its citizens: from a first class education to a working drinking fountain.

     6). When the United States ecstatically welcomed back its POWs from the Vietnam War, the administration at that time knew that there were POWs being left behind, POWs who were never returned to our country and who were left to be executed or to die in Vietnam.

     7). In Guantanamo Bay in an American prison as I write this paper, men are being tortured, held without trial, and held without the opportunity to face their accusers. Let me repeat just part of that: men are being tortured. Let me repeat just one word. Tortured. Let me made this even clearer: The United States of America is at this moment torturing human beings who are being held without trial.

Nations take a wrong turn sometimes, just as nations rise to greatness sometimes as well. But in either case, nations are only as ignorant and malevolent or as good and noble as the people who live within them. And it seems to me that people remain in ignorance and wallow in malevolence or rise to goodness and embrace nobility based upon the leadership of their country and how that leadership inspires them. For that is the purpose of leadership, is it not: to chart a course that people are willing to follow. Sometimes the course that is charted by the leadership is good. Sometimes it is not.

I believe it’s imperative that, as citizens, we halt and ask ourselves sobering questions when we veer off course as a country and specifically when we are being encouraged by anyone but most particularly by our leaders to lean in the direction of fear, hate, or war. If we examine history, it doesn’t take a genius to work out the fact that encouraging terror, loathing or violence among its citizenry rarely leads a country to anything good. Indeed, fear and hatred alone tend to render most people incapable of rational thought. Worse, fear and hatred tend to encourage a form of mass unconsciousness in which individuals unthinkingly cast blame upon the blameless in order to avoid any serious self-examination or, more important, any examination of their leaders. For instance, let me blame ________ (fill in the blank in any way you like…Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Evangelical Christians, African Americans, illegal immigrants, Catholics, Cubans, Arabs, Israelis, Egyptians, Albanians, Iranians, Iraqis, Germans, Vietnamese, Italians, psychiatric patients, animal lovers, vegetarians, whatever) for my job loss, or my credit crisis, or the condition of my nation’s economy, or the price of gas, or the continuation of war, or anything that might actually be partially the result of my own actions or inactions, or the actions or inactions of my leaders. It’s more convenient, after all, to blame _______ because blaming someone else requires so much less of me.

Blaming, actually, requires nothing of us. Unfortunately, it also requires next to nothing of our leaders. And I believe we are where we are today because that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.

Here’s the truth about me. I have not saluted the flag since the My Lai massacre. I cannot bring myself to do so. I’ve lost one job in part because of this (Mater Dei High School, Santa Ana, California, 1975) and while I have always stood, faced the flag, and remained respectfully silent during other people’s salute of it, I have not been able to salute it myself because it has seemed hypocritical of me to do so while I remain so deeply troubled by our nation’s longtime inability to admit wrongdoing. You might say to me in response to this revelation, “So leave the United States if you hate it here so much,” but then, you see, you yourself would be adhering to that 1970s adage that has so far gotten us absolutely no where, America: Love it or Leave it.

I believe there is another choice available to us beyond blind love for a country, and that is the choice that could best be described with the maxim, America: Willing to Change and Able to Grow. For a willingness to change reveals an equal willingness to grow, and growth implies an opening of the mind and the heart and a welcoming of the ideas of others into the way we operate and into the way we view the rest of the world. Frankly, I do not see how this could possibly be a bad thing.

Now, when Senator Obama went to visit a number of European cities this past summer, Senator John McCain scorned him and even developed a television commercial in which the word celebrity was used and in which a comparison was made between Senator Obama and both Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The reason for this comparison had to do with the fact that 200,000 people had shown up to hear Senator Obama speak in Berlin. I suppose it could be argued that all those people showing up because of a Senator in a business suit who was there to give a speech is indeed quite similar to people showing up to see a scantily clad singer or a former reality TV performer now famous for being famous. But I think there might be another reason those 200,000 Europeans turned out on that day in Berlin. I think there’s a possibility that the man in a business suit who was there to give a speech represented something to them, and perhaps what he represented was the hope that America might become an America different from the America we have been for a number of years now.

That is how I see this election in 2008, then: as a chance to become a different America, as a chance to turn the corner on who we have been for quite some time. I see it as a chance to change direction in this country. In Senator McCain I believe we have a man who is clinging to America: Love it or Leave It as well as to My Country Right or Wrong. I perceive this in his choice of a running mate whose declaration of “We’re America. We don’t apologize” indicates a considerable and disturbing lack of knowledge of our country’s history. I perceive this in the way he has treated his opponent: from the innuendo-ridden campaign commercials he has used to the lack of respect he has shown when brought face-to-face with him in debates. Most of all, I perceive this in his apparent inability to recognize that the policies of the past eight years—from economic policies to international policies—have brought us to this defining moment in which we either finally embrace the lessons of every country before us that has attempted and failed at empire building or we scorn those lessons and doom ourselves to a demise we could have otherwise avoided.

In this election of 2008, there’s been a lot of stuff floating around the airwaves and the internet waves that’s been designed to make me afraid, and I freely admit that I’m trying like the dickens not to be scared of the outcome of this election. But, frankly, my fear is not of “Muslim takeovers of the nation” or of Osama bin Laden showing up on my front porch with a bomb beneath his robes if we do not elect the “right” person. My fear is of what we stand to become as a nation if we vote into office the very people who so desperately want us to be afraid in the first place.

After all, “Terror is a powerful means of policy” were not the words of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt or any other great American leader. They were the words of Leon Trotksy, first Commissar of Defense under Lenin in the Soviet Union.

- Elizabeth George
Whidbey Island, Washington

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