“Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”
― Mark Twain
“They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country. But in modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.”
― Ernest Hemingway
To begin, I must emphasize that this is an opinion piece, nothing more than me standing up on a soapbox and giving voice to my frustrations. And, as an American, a Marine Corps combat veteran, and a generally cynical human being, I feel an obligation to vent these frustrations – not to impose my views, but to at least give them a voice. As such, please do not confuse this for an academic article or official document. Rather, I simply hope to explore the evolution of false patriotism that has taken root in post-9/11 America, a phenomenon I view as an existential threat to our way of life.
On September 11th, 2001, our country came under attack. For a moment, the fractiousness of US politics and culture clash fell to the wayside as we united under common cause – righteous indignation and a fierce desire for justice. Over the burning embers of the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and fields of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, Americans responded as one, overcoming our differences to pursue a common enemy.
In this common pursuit of justice, less than a month after the September 11th attacks, US forces invaded Afghanistan. The objective: destroy the al Qaeda operatives who planned these attacks and their Taliban hosts. Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as, “love for or devotion to one’s country.” While I am inherently skeptical of absolutes, during this time in US history, one would be hard-pressed to find an American not brimming with this patriotism, that is, a true love of our country and the way of life it represents. We had been attacked, and our love of country necessitated a just response. In this context, military action was an inevitable and logical extension of patriotism, as defending America and defeating its enemies in Afghanistan became indivisible objectives.
This unity underpinning America’s post-9/11 patriotism proved short-lived. As US policymakers shifted focus to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, putting Afghanistan and the true pursuit of justice in the rearview, the brief reprieve from contentious political divisions shattered. Regardless of concerns – justified or not – of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Saddam Hussein had not attacked the United States on September 11th. Consequently, as US politicians sought to mobilize support for the invasion of Iraq, military action no longer remained inextricably linked with the September 11th attacks. No longer could our elected officials look us in the eyes and say, “We are pursuing those responsible for attacking our homeland, and this pursuit justifies the use of military force.” In place of this clear connection, a tenuous logic arose somehow tying the invasion of Iraq to the defense of our homeland.
This tenuous logic brought inevitable questions – and pushback – from people who saw through its shaky foundation. People rightly began to ask that question dreaded by all people seeking to suppress logic – “Why?” Specifically, why are we invading Iraq? And, more pointedly, why are we committing to this military action when we have failed to hold those actually responsible for the September 11th attacks accountable? As these questions could not be answered with logic, US policymakers bent on the invasion of Iraq turned to a more nefarious method to generate support: establishing the false dichotomy of with-us-or-against-us. In other words, if you don’t support the invasion of Iraq, you must not support America. Remember “freedom” fries? Despite serving as a steadfast ally in our pursuit of justice in Afghanistan, France had the audacity to question the rationale for invading Iraq, refusing to provide troops in the process. Embracing the above false dichotomy, US policymakers argued that, in failing to support our invasion of Iraq, France no longer supported the United States as a whole.
Domestically, this false dichotomy manifested itself in a far more dangerous way than trite name changes a la “freedom” fries. In US culture, this with-us-or-against-us argument evolved into a perverted version of the patriotism – that love of America – that united our country in the dark days following September 11th. Embracing this flawed logic, the phenomenon of false patriotism arose, the idea that, if you love America, you must blindly support its use of military force. Do you have the audacity to question our military misadventures overseas? You must be against freedom, as well.
In the hands of US officials bent on continued military operations overseas, this false patriotism has been a potent weapon. When people question the rationale behind our seemingly endless wars, they face a common response – “We are defending our way of life, and a failure to support these combat operations must mean that you oppose this way of life.” This is a patently absurd conclusion, but clearly it remains effective. Eighteen years after Congress’s Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) provided the legal justification to pursue the September 11th perpetrators, this document remains a blank check for any and all combat operations remotely related to Islamic extremism.
Hiding behind the flawed logic of false patriotism, Congress has abdicated its military oversight responsibilities, effectively granting the executive branch free reign in the conduct of military operations. While it may be political suicide to acknowledge, terrorism is not an existential threat to the United States. On September 11th, al Qaeda operatives succeeded in the most horrific terror attack in United States history. Yet, despite the horrors of this attack, we emerged stronger as a nation, united in love of country and the way of life America represents. In no way, shape, or form did these terrorists represent a risk to the end of this great experiment in democracy.
However, in the years following September 11th, our response to terrorism has created an existential threat to the United States. By allowing the AUMF to remain in force, Congress has shaken the foundation of the American system. Built on a system of checks and balances between the three branches of government, our Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war for a reason – an executive branch with unrestrained power to use our nation’s military constitutes too significant a threat to democracy. As such, we currently find ourselves in a dangerous situation. Continued abdication of Congress’s military oversight role all but guarantees a slide down the slippery slope towards unchecked executive branch power to conduct military operations. And, at risk of appearing hyperbolic, can a democracy continue to exist when no check to endless combat operations exists?
What, then, is the call to action for patriotic Americans? From a philosophical perspective, we must first shatter the flawed logic of false patriotism. To question the merits of American military operations does not mean one hates freedom. Quite the contrary, demanding honest and open debate about the merits (or lack thereof) of military force goes hand-in-hand with a love for the American men and women carrying out that force – and the country they serve. Next, we must hold our elected officials accountable, demanding that Congress fulfill its military oversight role. From a practical perspective, this means revoking the AUMF. This post-9/11 authorization can no longer serve as a blank check for combat operations. Prior to sending our men and women in uniform into harm’s way, Congress must conduct its due diligence by: A) debating and defining the political objectives driving military force, and B) ensuring a logical link between that military force and its overarching political objectives exists. Endless combat operations for the sake of combat operations cannot remain the norm.
To reiterate the Merriam-Webster definition, patriotism entails “love for or devotion to one’s country.” Quotes from two pillars of American literature introduced this essay. Shattering the phenomenon of false patriotism means embracing Mark Twain’s argument, because the unfortunate alternative is realizing Hemingway’s. We owe our men and women in uniform more than this outcome.
Maurice “Chipp” Naylon is a former Marine Corps infantry officer, combat veteran, and the author of THE NEW MINISTRY OF TRUTH: COMBAT ADVISORS IN AFGHANISTAN AND AMERICA’S GREAT BETRAYAL.