Let Us Salute the Flag: On the Nobility of Motives

Aaaagh! Enough. I keep reading that I should Honor Our Troops. On airline flights, I am asked to applaud Our Young Men in Uniform. Why, for God’s sake? What have Our Troops done for me except cause me great embarrassment, cost money better spent on anything else, and kill millions of people that I have had no interest in killing? For this I am to thank them?

No, they don’t have noble motives. Men join the military because they need a job, because they want money for college or because they are bored or want to prove their manhood or go to exotic places and get laid. Basic training, jump school, being a tank gunner and doing nocturnal scuba insertions are much more appealing to a young man than selling fan belts at the NAPA outlet.

Patriotism? “Love of country” is an after-market add-on, good for a drink or a pat on the back at the Legion–nothing more than an expression of the pack instinct that makes men in all places and times join in groups to fight other groups. The pack instinct is why tribal warfare is continual among primitive peoples, why war, otherwise inexplicable, remains incessant between modern countries. It is why the gangs of young males in Chicago mirror military hierarchy, with territory to be expanded or defended, with leaders and insignia (e.g. black and gold jackets for the Latin Kings ), with hand signs to signify identify and loyalty. It is why people join  screaming mobs in political conventions, why they become wildly emotional over football teams consisting largely of convicted felons who have nothing to do with the city.

The pattern of loyalty inward to one’s pack and hostility outward toward other packs explains the peculiar morality of the military (and of most other people). A Marine colonel will be at home a good neighbor, civic-minded, honest, cut the grass and help old ladies across the street. Come a war and he will mercilessly bomb any city he is told to bomb, and after killing he doesn’t care whom on the ground, he will go to the officers’ club where there will be high-fives and war stories.

We must not notice this, or the other feral dogs will turn on us. If you say that soldiers are morally indistinguishable from Mafia hit-men, you will arouse outrage—but there is no difference. A soldier who has never heard of Vietnam or Iraq goes when ordered to kill Vietnamese and Iraqis, and duly kills tehm. Guido and Vito, who have never heard of Hyman Blitzschein the store-owner who is behind on his protection payments, break Hyman’s leg when ordered to. What is the difference?

Morality is always a very thin veneer on top of the deeper savagery of the pack. Militaries encourage this savagery. From Joshua onward until very recently, armies regularly put cities to the sword, and generals allowed their troops to sack and rape as rewards for good service. For those unfamiliar with such things, “putting cities…” meant killing every living thing within.

A graphic description of torture and murder routine in the Thirty Years War would have most readers retching. Today this sort of thing, when exposed, is held to be in bad taste. Only the United States engages openly in torture (put “Abu Ghraib” In Google images) but others do it.

Of course, much depends on who is doing what to whom. When the Germans bombed London, the English thought it barbaric. Later, when they were bombing German cities, it was a form of heroism. The Rape of Nanjing was hideous, while the frying of Hiroshima was not. Killing everyone in a city of a hundred thousand by hand would be very bad PR, but burning them to death from above is a cause for congratulations.

An effect of the pack instinct is the suppression of cognitive dissonance. If one noticed that a woman, campaigning for sexual abstinence, was pregnant with her seventh child, one might notice the contradiction. Patriots, or the American variety anyway, cannot notice that Our Boys, and Our Girls, are committing the routine atrocities that armies normally commit. Call it cognitive indifference.

American atrocities are always Isolated Incidents. An Isolated Incident is business-as-usual that is detected by the press. Thus torture is best avoided by restricting coverage.

It is de rigueur to spaak of our boys fighting to defend America and our way of life, and to speak of their sacrifices. Americans did things out of goodness. In the Fifties this spirit was exemplified by Superman jumping out of a window, while the voice-over intoned  “truth, justice, and the American way,” then thought to be related.

Actually soldiers are more sacrificed than sacrificing. Precisely how killing Afghan goat-herds protects the United States is not clear: careful students of geography have argued that Afghanistan is somewhere else. The evidence does seem to support this.

Today, the motives of wars are usually disguised so as to be palatable. It has been said that the British fought for empire, the French for la gloire de la France, the Russians to steal watches from the wounded, and the Americans for vague moral abstractions.  Thus Washington fights to rid Iraq of a cruel dictator, while supporting many others as cruel; fights to instill democracy, as if anyone anywhere cared whether Afghanistan were democratic; and to protect the world from nonexistent WMD.

The dog-pack instinct is most intense in the elite outfits, SEALs and Force Recon and Special Forces, with tightly-bonded small groups—the focus of males—working together. Powerful free-floating hostility characterizes them, and patriotism gives them a cover story for doing what they would want to do anyway.

Loyalty to a small band of warriors is easily transferred to an abstraction such as country or religious faith. Witness the fervor of Moslems today, or the enthusiasm for Christianity of illiterate Crusaders in the eleventh century who knew little of Christianity and certainly didn’t follow its moral precepts. Being swept up in a Cause gives an appearance of meaning to a life otherwise devoid of such. The flags, the hurrahs, the rhythmic thump-thump-thump of hundred of boots, the solidarity—these reinforce the pack instinct, and recruiters and politicians know it.

And so a coal-miner who hates the coal company, hates suits and liberals and the rich and blacks and homosexuals and knows he is being exploited and doesn’t really like anybody at all except local friends, will discover unexpected loyalty when the Japanese bomb Pearl.

And now, let’s hear a huzzah for Our Boys.

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