“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” -- Marcus Aurelius
MY COUNTRY, RIGHT AND WRONG
April 25, 2004: “My country, right or wrong.” I’ve always subconsciously ascribed those words to some great American soldier-statesman, perhaps George Washington or Nathan Hale. It is most often attributed to Commodore Stephen Decatur's toast, "In matters of foreign affairs, Our Country, may she always be right..." I expect many have likewise assumed. Perhaps that’s because it’s been a soldier’s credo and an inspiration to generations of patriotic Americans. In fact, that verbatim phrase, My country, right or wrong! was emblazoned between the painted flag and the field elevation notice that graced the portal of the flight operations shack on an Arctic airbase where I was stationed for a time. Stand on that flight line, and you read those words: “My country, right or wrong!”
Such words seem appropriate above a military portal. They did even then - perhaps especially then. It was the Sixties. Like today, they declare commitment in the face of doubt. Tennyson said it best: Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Like military service itself, such messages are unambiguous, unwavering in the face of the cognitive dissonance and conflict every thinking soldier experiences: My country, right or wrong. It holds no place for either subtlety or those who would deign to be subtle. I never questioned such words while in uniform and under oath. Few have. Commitment is part of our strength as a people. But as a civilian – an American civilian - I reject the statement out of hand. As an American and a still free man, I’m committed to reason not to oaths of obedience.
In the final accounting, America is a place of civilians. As such we have a responsibility to those whose time it is to do and die. That responsibility is clear and is specific in our nation’s Bill Of Rights. As free Americans ours is to make reply. Ours is to reason why.
Ours is a government by, for, and of the people, and people is just another way of saying human beings. And what is a human being if not a thinking, reasoning, self-aware being? As every honorable veteran knows, when a soldier in the service of America accepts My country, right or wrong, he does so as a deliberate act of free will and human dignity. But he does surrogate his personal freedom of choice for some period when he takes the oath. He does so as an act of trust, firm in the knowledge that his civilian leadership will be a just and responsible leadership. He trusts that his civilian leadership will be honest and act honorably under the flag of his country. One cannot deny, however, that the soldiers sailors, airmen, and marines of mine and subsequent generations have not always seen their trust in the modern crop of civilian leaders justified. My country, right or wrong is an illusion built and sustained upon the naiveté of our expendable youth and that of the adults who would sacrifice them to the will of whomever holds power. But through disillusionment comes knowledge. Many Americans know better. As we grow older and see our children sent into harm’s way and used as harm’s ministers, mine, of all generations, should be skeptical of those who send them. There were few active protests of the Korean War. There were many protests of the Vietnam war, but few substantive until its third year and a widespread draft that took the privileged sons as well as the expendable sons of the traditionally expendable classes. Iraq, however, was protested by the world and by rational Americans from its very first moment. But not by our soldiers. Our soldiers cannot hold our leaders accountable and do their jobs effectively. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. We must speak and act for them, or we must turn our backs and let them continue to do and die, alone, abandoned to the will of the corrupt, the frightened, the insane among us.
When any American soldier who has served his country in the decades after WW-II returns to civilian life, wiser, perhaps jaded by what he’s seen or felt, and he still accepts such platitudes as My country, right or wrong, he abdicates his will, his intellect, and his constitutional responsibility as an American. He subjugates reason to bias. He becomes derelict in his duty to protect the republic and the civilian public who know not what he knows, who’ve seen nothing of what he’s seen, and hopefully never will. When faced with an obviously corrupt civilian government, it is a veteran’s duty to act against that corruption in the ways our constitution abundantly provides and fiercely protects.
We approach this duty each in our own way. This past week we’ve seen the usual pinheaded news coverage of Bush administration flaks criticizing the Democratic Party’s candidate, John Kerry, for his rebellious 1971 act of tossing his medals (campaign ribbons) over a fence – the White House fence. Kerry, following his Vietnam service, led the activist group Vietnam Veterans Against The War. This writer neither presumes to condone or to condemn the young Kerry’s actions here. His was perhaps an extreme and to many an inappropriate expression of disillusionment with his government. But that a veteran – be it John Kerry or John Doe - has earned medals to toss, means he once stood his ground for his country, right or wrong. In Kerry’s case, that three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star, were earned is fairly conclusive proof that he stood his ground more than once. That is a far, far greater expression of patriotism, honor, and understanding of ones duty to the republic than is the quick and mindless criticism of a symbolic act of protest. Many of those critics are those already guilty of abdicating their public responsibility. I speak of the pinheads of the corporate press. But that the pinheads are being manipulated to critique rather than to analysis by those who ran from the fight while under oath, and worse still, by those who would stoop to serve those who ran, says far more than their empty words could ever hope to say.
The administration’s flaks are criticizing John Kerry’s actions for obvious political gain. So be it. But, by doing so the flacks and their press lackeys are also criticizing every veteran who speaks out against the Bush Administration’s atrocities from the perspective of a veteran’s unique experience. In the case of many a Vietnam veteran, that is the experience of unjust war and its ravages. For when reason fails, when voting fails, when law fails, when discourse fails, then protest is the veteran’s only recourse short of armed rebellion. Who among us knows better what is being wrought in our name than does the combat veteran? Yet we are encouraged to criticize rather than to learn from him.
Perhaps that’s intended. Perhaps it’s programmed into our unique sense of nationalism. After all, America – through the wisdom of its founders - is mandated to be a nation of civilians led by civilians. But our system, as with every system of governance, is vulnerable also to the will of the corrupt. In such a milieu, even a civilian leader - particularly one not elected to office, nor especially bright or demonstrably honest - can be a willing or wholly unwitting traitor to our constitutional republic and the foundations of human dignity upon which it was crafted. Given the unimaginable power at his disposal, such a leader can become an equally unwitting tyrant. All that is required for a system of government – any system of government – to fail, is that both leader and led share a mutual ignorance or bias. From ignorance derives fear. From bias derives irrationality and dishonesty. No nation or form of government is immune. Our current president and the criminal manipulators and incompetents with whom he finds himself surrounded, are empirical proof of the American system’s vulnerability to corruption.
When I hear this president make such infantile proclamations as “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” and his mangled, “I’m not about nuancing,” or his more than color-blind “I see things in black and white,” it leaves no room for the intelligent or the informed or the fair-minded portion of a civilian population to exercise their uniquely human attribute of deductive reasoning. It also removes any hope or possibility whatsoever, that one of the best and brightest has ascended the throne. Demonstration – dramatic or symbolic protest – is the enlightened patriot’s only viable recourse.
However, for many Americans, simplistic platitudes are the granite rocks upon which their patriotism stands. Intractable. No thinking required. And when it comes to simplistic platitudes, My country, right or wrong is the most simplistic of the lot. What could be a clearer declaration? What could be easier to understand? What could better appeal to, or better reinforce adamant bias?
My country, right or wrong!
As an American I suddenly see America as being hardly recognizable as my country at all, right, wrong, or indifferent. I cannot help but be repulsed beyond words by her actions in my name. I am repulsed by a once-proud and always courageous military suddenly run by a herd of civilian murderers and thieves and being used as their personal pirates. At the head of them struts a miscreant whom every evidence declares should have been charged before a military court’s martial for desertion in time of war long before being allowed to steal and subsequently disgrace our country’s presidency and her people.1 Yet, this never befell the fortunate son. Instead he “soldiers” on a free man. He remains free to arrange the indiscriminate slaughter of uncounted thousands of men, women, and children in a defenseless country, civilians who have done nothing to America more onerous than living upon the world’s second largest and most priceless oil reserves. Make no mistake, those oil reserves are what the deserter and his criminal handlers lust for beyond human and humane reason. They have used our soldiers to kill thousands of innocents that they may get their already greasy hands on that black gold buried beneath the ever more bloodied sands of Iraq. Any defenders of their homeland our soldiers encounter are killed, and their memory publicly desecrated by a stupid embedded American press that reports on them as the thugs and murderers. On Friday evening in Florida the miscreant reaffirmed his delusion, "America,” he said, “will never be run out of Iraq by a bunch of thugs and killers." Since I doubt he was refering to his own administration, the naďve press ate it up at face value. But that brave if misguided statement by the president is code. The miscreant speaks in code. It tells his handlers that he’ll continue to provide them the ways and the means to murder countless more civilians, and countless more than that until they get what they came for - or more accurately what they sent America’s sons and daughters to take for them while they sit safely at home just as each of them sat out that ‘ol crazy Asian war. It is code that tells other of his handlers that they will be paid handsomely by the taxpaying parents of America’s sons and daughters to manufacture the weapons their children will use to kill the children of others. It appears that the killing of children is condoned by our president, but only if those children have already been born.
I’m proud to say the logic escapes me.
The logic of virtually everything this administration does in the blasphemed name of freedom, security, decency, escapes me. It should revile all people of good will. Virtually everything being carried out in our name by these madmen is in violation of our American constitutional principles, yet we hear nothing of substance from the self-proclaimed patriots who seem to be everywhere one looks today.
We are truly a nation whose majority population believes in, My Country, right or wrong.
But that phrase, its origins and its true meaning will resonate with and disturb free thinking Americans every time we hear it, and the more often we hear it, the more clearly it illustrates how far we’ve fallen as a peoples.
For the phrase – My country, right or wrong - as a direct quotation, is incorrect. In fact, just like virtually everything else the majority of Americans are willing to believe, it’s wrong as hell.
The actual quotation, as spoken by the celebrated German-born, United States Senator, Carl Schurz back in the Nineteenth Century, is very different from that with which we’ve grown familiar and to which we’ve obediently ascribed in the post-millennial darkness that is Twenty-First Century America. It’s worlds-apart different. It’s true meaning diametric to the blind obedience implied by the corrupt, “My Country, Right Or Wrong.”
Of course those self-appointed guardians of mindless loyalty who so fondly call themselves patriots in today’s kinder, dumber America, would not only encourage the popular corruption of Schurz’s actual, and brilliantly Jeffersonian original words, but would be very happy to never so much as see the entire statement in historically accurate context. So, on the assumption that our self-appointed leaders and simplistic herd of “patriots” would have lost interest in this tome by now, (we are, after all, several pages deep, and still no hint of cartoons or feel good platitudes) here’s what the man – and true patriot – Carl Schurz actually said. You’ll find it incredibly relevant today.
“My country,” declared Senator Carl Schurz, “If right, to be kept right, and, if wrong, to be set right.” What, I ask, could be more different from the simplistic if not wholly mindless, My Country, Right Or Wrong, to which we’ve become conditioned?
Nothing, that’s what. Nothing could be more different in its meaning and intent as the foundation of a democratic republic than those two phrases are, one from the other.
But that’s not all Senator Schurz said that day. “The American people” Schurz continued, “should be specially careful not to permit themselves to be influenced in their decisions by high-sounding phrases of indefinite meaning, by vague generalities, or by seductive catchwords appealing to unreasoning pride and reckless ambition. More than ever, true patriotism now demands the exercise of the soberest possible discernment.
“I am far from denying that this republic, as one of the great powers of the world, has its responsibilities. But what is it responsible for? Is it to be held, or to hold itself, responsible for the correction of all wrongs done by strong nations to weak ones, or by powerful oppressors to helpless populations? Is it, in other words, responsible for the general dispensation of righteousness throughout the world? Neither do I deny that this republic has a mission, and I am willing to accept what we are frequently told, that this mission consists in ‘furthering the progress of civilization.’ But does this mean that wherever obstacles to the progress of civilization appear, this republic should at once step in to remove those obstacles by means of force, if friendly persuasions do not avail?
Every sober-minded person will admit that under so tremendous a task any earthly power, however great, would soon break down.”
Quite different from, My Country, Right Or Wrong. Don’t you agree? In fact, the actual statement is about as different in its meaning as it could possibly be from the dumbed-down byte with which we’re today familiar.
When looked at in context, if we were to but replace the word “civilization” with the popular noun of the moment – democracy – the entire statement could have come from one of the few patriotic Americans who grace that same senate floor today. One can almost see Robert Byrd, his hand and voice shaking less with age than with outrage, as he rails against this thing – this unrecognizable thing – which the land and the idea that we still call America has become at the oh-so-steady, blood and oil stained hands that now hold our nation’s tiller as they drive her steady onward, straight on to the waiting rocks.
About The Author
Dom Stasi is Chief Technology Officer for a national satellite network based in Los Angeles. He was the original chief engineer who helped design and build both HBO and MTV’s satellite infrastructures. Mr. Stasi flew aerial reconnaissance during the cold war and was a member of the Project Apollo technical team. A frequently published science and technology writer, the opinions expressed in this piece are solely his own.