A closet patriot.

I have gradually and increasingly noticed in my adult self a rather repressed, quiet but fervent American patriot.  I write this tentatively, because the idea of being a ‘patriot’ in the (as they say) post-9-11 United States has certain political and social connotations that don’t necessarily apply to me.  I am not a Republican.  I never voted for George Bush, I disagreed emphatically with the war in Iraq as soon as the first bomb dropped, I asked my husband (then my boyfriend) not to enlist in the military, I think Dick Cheney has in him an eerie evil streak, etc.  I suppose I don’t conform to the definition of a ‘patriot’ as it has been branded and marketed by the more conservative faction (to put it nicely) of this country.

But my skin ripples with chills when fighter jets buzz the stadium at football games.  I belt the National Anthem, often in the shower.  This Christmas, when my in-laws (and specifically my father-in-law, who served in the Navy as a flight officer for 25 years), asked me about living across the Long Island Sound from Manhattan on September 11, 2001, I found myself telling them about one of my wealthier customers at the small neighborhood market where I worked, who bought hundreds of massive American flags, as big as bedsheets, and gave them out in his community.  I was crying.  I was crying real tears on Christmas thinking about a rich guy handing out oversized flags.

Which leads me to believe that I am, in fact, a closet patriot.

And which also, in some ways, explains my fascination with the military.  More specifically: I am fascinated by the individuals–most of them around my age–that choose (though we can debate the amount of choice in it) to give up so much in service of an imperfect country.  A few nights ago, in the small rustic bar in my town, I found myself in tears again as I chatted with a warm-hearted, well-mannered, hazel-eyed man about my age over cold PBRs.  I asked if he had been a student in my husband’s river rescue class, and he said, “Yes, ma’am,” in that automatic but reverent way of military personnel.  He was not forthcoming about his experience in the Navy until I had asked enough questions to make it obvious that I really did want to know.  He was a member of a special branch of the Navy Seals, nicknamed The Door Kickers, for six years and four tours.  He started bootcamp as one of one-hundred, and by the end of bootcamp, 9-11 had happened and only 6 of the initial 100 had made it through the insane training and testing to be included in his elite unit.  He and his “family,” as he called the other five, left bootcamp and deployed straight to the Middle East.  They were considered by the US Government to be lethal with their hands.  As he spoke (vaguely, of course) about his experiences and missions, he spoke mostly about the other men who were with him, their relationships and stories, their successes and tragedies as a group, their determination to complete their job and get each other home.  Under his shirt, he was wearing the dog tags of the four who, when their unit crossed an IED and were literally blown up, had died instantly.  His body was found 300 feet away from the blast and he was missing half of his face, but after a year or more in a military hospital and full facial reconstructive surgery, he received his honorable release papers and headed west to start a new life surrounded by nature, where, as he said, “no one knows what I’ve done.”  Tears.

So, perhaps rather unoriginally but nevertheless sincerely, I’m pouring out a sip of my Pimm’s Cup today, as I sit in the 4th-of-July sun, for that vet and his four fallen brothers, and for that little reluctant patriot inside of me that will secretly well up when the rockets glare tonight.


14 thoughts on “A closet patriot.

  1. I was so touched by this post. What a story of courage and humility – for both you, and the unsung hero.

    America makes sense to so few from the “outside”, with its flag-waving xenophobes and big cars and cheesy-grinned oafish characters. What you’ve captured here, though, is something that underlies all the stuff that’s so easy to mock: this place is stuffed full of awesomeness, if we only take time to look.

    Thank you, LZ. A lesser woman would never begun the conversation let alone write about it.

  2. So far, you are our only American contributor on Mother Sugar, so I am interested to hear what the other sweet things have to say. As a Canadian, and I think for many Canadians, nationalism is a still a fledgling thing. Our being proud of that red maple leaf is a relatively new phenomenon in contrast to the pride of our red white and blue neighbor. I’m not even sure we use the word patriot. So, it is interesting for me to read your post, to hear how you question or reluctantly admit the pride in your country. As an outsider, I have never truly met an American who wasn’t (even if unbeknownst to them) terribly terribly proud of their land in a fundamental way. Like how one might feel about one’s first born. My own nationalism had to be cultivated consciously. So your conflict seems logical to me: there is a core part of your nationalism there that just is, yet you have the conscience to question what it is, why it’s there and where it comes from. Perhaps Canadians do it in reverse: our conscience leads us to our nationalism.

    A quick thought about the military, which is also fascinating to me. When I lived in Bahrain, the American fifth fleet was there. My exposure to the US military was odd: packs of shaved headed white and black boys looking solemn and a little scary eating in big groups in restaurants, in primary colored polo shirts, with no girls among them. Unnaturally well behaved for their age, I kept wondering what they were really like. Of course, these were the young ones, who lived on the site and had curfews. Sadly, I’ve had my share of uncomfortable encounters too: meeting a few who had leave, who decided to get drunk near a swimming pool and let loose all that repressed energy from being so far away from their girlfriends or whatever. We once chose not to live in an apartment building because the pool was always full of half clothed marines (not itself a problem) with a lot of bud light – there was no way I was going to take a swim in such rambunctious company. There are economic factors, social factors that made my getting to know the American military presence in Bahrain hard.

    And then a friend of mine fell in love with an American who was in the military. Who made sure he got an education, who worked on secret technical missions that he couldn’t tell us about. Who looked like those boys in the restaurant but was polite and prompt and serious and well meaning and still careful, but such a gentleman. He still had to sneak out when he went past curfew, but he studied, he worked. He would patiently and earnestly answer all my stupid odd naive questions about the military. He is the best representative the military could have had. And now, though he is older than all his undergrad counterparts, he’s going to Brown. He’s a veteran and he does a brilliant job representing his country and educating those around him. And I am so very very proud to know him and to support him and to see him get all he has worked so hard for. Which reminds that while I might have views on the ‘military’ as a concept, I can’t forget its made of people, families, lives, dreams, all the same stuff that we are made of.


    • So interesting to hear your thoughts, BeZ– especially those around your experience with deployed American soldiers. A different perspective, to be sure, than my experience growing up just outside Kaneohe Marine Corps Base in Hawai`i. I knew most of those marines and their officers as the parents of my kindergarten classmates.

      Your comments on the idea of nationalism are also fascinating. I think some of my reluctance around the idea of patriotism is similar to my reluctance around the idea of organized religion: I am incredibly uncomfortable with any kind of absolute, with a belief that excludes other beliefs– or, in this case, the way American patriotism can sometimes eclipse understanding of other kinds of nationalism, other people’s loyalties to their own countries. I suppose that is at the root of it. That is, after all, what gives us a bad name– and not undeservedly. I am grateful to have this space to tease out all of these ideas without a fear of judgment. So: thank you!

      • I think it had something to do with being based abroad. Not a lot of families. Lots of fellows in their late teens, early twenties. And I’m sure had I been integrated I would have discovered a whole other story.

  3. Oh LaZ, there’s so much to say here! I tend to believe that Nationalism is at the root of many evils, it reinforces notions of “us” and “them” instead of seeing one another as brothers and sisters. Horrible wars have been fought on the basis of these ideas and horrible atrocities committed and so I’m usually of a mind that we should throw out the concept altogether. And yet…. I find myself tearing up at commercials for the Olympics featuring Canadian atheletes, I secretly loved a certain beer commercial with the slogan “I am Canadian”, and so I very much empathize with your closet patriotism.

    My father came to Canada when he was sixteen. He said to me once that he feels neither Canadian nor German, and I remember his surprise when I said that I “felt Canadian”. But I do, and I am proud of my country (for the most part). So you’ve engendere in me a lot of questions about all of that. What do I love when I say I love my country? Especially since it’s so very diverse. A good question. I suppose some of it has to do with the people I know and love, but also with characteristics I see in people that can only come from living where they do. Even people who are new to this country take them on – a certain kind of politeness or hardiness or down-to-earth-ness that I identify with being Canadian. But maybe that’s totally subjective. Maybe I look for these things in people to identify myself with them, I don’t know. I think it also comes from loving the actual land – the prairies, mountains, trees – where I have lived.

    About the military, there again I empathize. Really I wish that we’d all get rid of the guns and bombs already. But – I read a book a while ago written by a Canadian general about his experiences in Rwanda, and for the first time I could see why someone would want to be in the military. There were such stories of bravery there, of triumph over adversity, a real sense of purpose in the work, it seemed that he was doing something “real” in a way that I haven’t experienced. And of course, the soldier you met, deserves only compassion.

    So thank you, for much food for thought and happy (belated) Fourth of July!

    • Agreed agreed agreed. There are bits of everything in that (closet) patriotism: the people, the characteristics, the land, the places, and then something harder to explain.

      You read my mind.

    • If all military leaders were like Romeo Dallaire the military would look very different. His experiences make him a true leader and someone to be admired. If people like him were making the decisions about how the military should be used than there would be far fewer agregious uses of the military.

      Would an American equvalent be Dwight Eisenhower? Maybe someone knows more about him than me, but from the little I’ve read he was a millitary man who understood the gravity of violence and the potential pitfalls of the military.

  4. An interesting post – If someone asked me if I was “patriotic” I would cringe a bit at the word, because I have always been suspicious of it, and yet I always say that I have already won the lottery – just because of the fact that I was born in Canada, and had the parents that I had. Neither was born in Canada but both assure me that they would never go back to their country of birth if they had a choice to do so beyond a brief visit – and both of those countries, the Netherlands and Italy, are not exactly difficult to live in. And no matter how far I might roam away from Canada, I am always glad to set my feet back down on firm Canadian soil, even when that soil is a bit colder than I would prefer. I have seen enough of the world to know that I’ve got it good. And yes BH, those winter Olympic “we were born for this” propaganda commercials made me shiver a bit as well . So, I guess I AM patriotic. But in Canada being patriotic doesn’t conjure up images of the military as much as it does in the US for some reason. But here’s the rub – if someone asked me if I was pro-war I would say “no”. If someone asked me if I was “pro-miltary” I would also say no. But if someone asked me if I therefore thought that we should disassemble our military and that the US, our closest cousin, should do the same, I would not say yes, unless we could get a global agreement that everyone else would also get rid of their military. This, of course, judging from past recorded history, has never happened, ergo not likely to happen any time soon. So, perhaps I am also actually pro-military – although the adage “peace through superior fire power” would have to be the explanation. But here is the thing about the military:
    I like the point you make LZ about how much choice people actually have in joining the military. If anyone is interested, I suggest reading up a bit about the military aspect of the “No Child Left Behind” policy that GW Bush pushed through in his auspicious time in office. When I was teaching in the Bronx I was asked to hand out paperwork to every child in the class which they were to take home to have their parents sign and return to the school. The letter, which required only one signature from the parents and did not leave options as to which organizations they wished to have contact their child and which they didn’t, listed military recruiters along with university recruiters as if they were providing the equal scale of opportunity. They were counting on no one knowing that they could opt out for any of these, which they can, but are not given the option to do so on the piece of paper given to the students. Military recruiters have quotas that they aim to meet, and surely we all realize that they won’t be contacting the students at the private schools in Manhattan or elsewhere. They will focus on the kids from a lower socio-economic background. So in the end, it isn’t necessarily the military that I am against, it’s the fact few of the people that call the country to war, and asks them to do it for love of country, will ever go themselves, or send their own daughters or sons. I would like to see how many wars would be fought, for the love of country or otherwise, if everyone from every country turned to their leaders and said “Sure I’ll go, or, sure I’ll send my son, but YOU first”. Peace would reign my friends, peace would reign.

    • Bellacanto, I think we might be of similar minds on military. Sounds like my views are more extreme though. I would go as far as calling myself a pacifist. I find military problematic in all senses – particularly when it is the military of a government that feels embolden enough to invade other countries without due cause (or manufactured cause.) Like you, I am realistic enough to know that disassembling military is not a good idea. I see a just and moral role for peace keepers and disaster responders. Problem is that the power of the military is not often yielded in a just and moral fashion.

      Your point about the US military recruiting techniques is enlightening. You also have me thinking about countries that do send their leaders’ children to war. Isreal has mandatory military service for all citizens. The British Royals come up througn the military. I’m not sure that this changes anything.

      • Good point. If anything, military training would perhaps only make them more likely to think of war rather than peace as a first rather than last solution to whatever problem might arise. But I’ve often wondered about how much action any of the Royals would actually see if it came to war. I always heard about them being in the military but I only ever see pictures of them in very clean flight suits stepping on or off of a helicopter (when they aren’t playing polo or visiting with the Queen :)).

      • The Royals are not really a good example – they have no real authority anyway. They just came to mind.

  5. As an American, I found this post to be really moving, although words like patriotism have become dirty words in our lexicon over the last 25 years.

    My father was in the Army in Korea, my older brother is a career Marine, my ex husband was an officer in the Naval Reserves.

    I’m not a big flag waving kind of person, I support the troops without ever having supported the war for even 1 moment over the last 10 years. My mother sends boxes of food and toiletries to different branches of the military with a bunch of other older ladies every month.

    But I do root for the good in the US to win out over evil. I know we are considered uncouth, ill mannered, idiots by most of the world. I also know I have become really, really cynical about our government in general. That for all our shouts of “democracy” there’s an awful lot were not told the truth about, and a lot we’re not allowed to say.

    Yet there is something in most American people that makes them the first in line to donate or help in a natural disaster, that makes them almost always the first to walk in when everyone else is walking out. We are uncouth and ill mannered in a lot of ways, I will own that. But government aside, I believe the majority of the people are genuinely good kind and generous people.

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