July Fourth. Fireworks. The flag. Patriotism. Hot dogs. Mustard or ketchup. Potato salad growing E coli in the heat.
I'm going to talk about the Fourth of July in the '50s and my parents, but before that I want to talk about the flag.
In the '50s, the flag meant we were one nation, we had a government with three equal parts, and we were proud of our nation for our history and for what we had done; and, fresh in everyone's mind, for how important America had been to the winning of World War II. So I liked saluting the flag in my school, and the flag was a symbol of our being in agreement on American principles we all valued.
Starting around the time of the Vietnam war, and the protests against that war, the flag was claimed by the conservative, pro-Vietnam war people as Their Flag. They hijacked that symbol so it represented their point of view. If you loved America and loved the flag, you supported your country whenever they said it was time to go to war. Criticizing the war was seen as disloyal.
However, don't forget the Nuremburg trials had happened, and a German accent saying "I vas just following orders" had became a cliché of movies, TV, and even cartoons. It entered the world's consciousness.
And so when my generation looked at Vietnam, unconsciously we felt it was hard only to obey, obedience in every single instance had been pointed out to be wrong in Nuremburg. There were times you had to say, this is an order I won't obey. I am NOT saying the Vietnam war is the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany's actions. But I am saying that draft age men like myself found ourselves saying "Why are we in Vietnam?" in an uncertain voice; we had sort of missed the lead up to it. And the answers coming back were confusing and debatable. It was hard to sit there going, Well this doesn't sound right, but I think I'll go kill and maybe die in it anyway. Obedience was no longer the prime virtue. Individuals had to know when to say no.
So for all of that war, and for the years after, the flag simply belonged to the conservatives who claimed it for their point of view. They were not good at sharing it.
After 9-11, there was a brief time when the flag suddenly represented ALL OF US in the country, it was a time of real solidarity among us. We were one country, and we had been attacked.
When it was announced that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9-11 attacks, Bush asked the Afghanistan government to hand over bin Laden to us. When they refused, he announced his intention of invading that country to capture bin Laden.
Throughout all of that, our country was unified. All of us.
In the arguments about the Iraqi invasion that have followed, it is often forgotten and ignored that Republicans and Democrats alike were behind this initial military response to 9-11.
In the suburbs of Pennsylvania where I live, people started putting out flags after 9-11. I did too -- something I had never done in my life before, not because I wasn't patriotic, but because up until then the flag felt owned by the right wing; and if you put out the flag you were saying: "America, love it or leave it." And "love it" meant AGREE with the various administrations' foreign policies. (Though during the Clinton years, the conservatives STILL owned the flag, or said they did. People who put out the flag tended to be Clinton haters, or want him impeached. Right?)
In my lifetime the flag has represented ALL of us only during my childhood in the '50s, and in the brief time BEFORE the Afghanistan invasion morphed into the Iraq invasion.
The Iraq war, of course, is called "Operation Iraqi Freedom."
The Bush government -- enamored of advertising and manipulation and image over content -- likes to name its wars. No simple descriptive phrase like World War II or Vietnam War or Gulf War -- they like to put a spin on the war: "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is meant to inoculate against criticism, and to praise oneself as noble. We may have attacked a country that did not attack us, but still with a name like Operation Iraqi Freedom, we're the good guys, because we're spreading freedom. And we're (trying) to control the words.
If Bush-Cheney (or rather Cheney-Bush) had been in office during World War II, I think they might have called that war, "The Noble War to Free Europe." That way, we'd all know what to think, and how great we are.
It's always better to let others tell us how great we are, no? As the Allies did eventually, during and after WWII. Saying it ourselves makes it all rather suspect.
Coca-Cola -- it's the "pause that refreshes!" "It's the real thing" -- just like we are. "Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should." "Doctors Recommend Philip Morris." "I'd Walk a Mile for Camel." "More Doctors Smoke Camels than any other Cigarette." So it must be good! And safe too! "Operation Iraqi Freedom" -- a damn good idea, and we're doing it for good reasons! We drive the streets of Baghdad with a little ice-cream truck, and we pass out Eskimo pies, smoothies and democracy.
I saw journalist Helen Thomas on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show the other day, and she said that (approximate quote) she was always opposed to our attacking Iraq because "you don't spread freedom with the barrel of a gun." With ideas, with diplomacy, with example, she said -- but not with violence.
I suppose the conservatives think that statement is stupid or naïve. I don't. I think it's smart. I want to throw up when I hear about Bush's desire to spread democracy... he does it by invading and killing. I mean that may not be his ultimate intention, but that's what invading a country amounts to.
Plus imagine if we had ever been invaded. Imagine if during the Clinton years, China invaded us, killed Clinton and then chose a government for us. Even with how much the right wing hated Clinton, I don't think they would have been happy with that scenario. Yes, yes, I know Clinton was elected, and Saddam wasn't. But even so, IMAGINE being invaded by another country. Just imagine it.
I want to stop talking about Bush and Cheney, and wax nostalgic about the Fourth of July and the fifties.
Because of the alcoholism in my family, Christmas and New Year's were fraught, tense holidays because there was too much opportunity to drink.
Thanksgiving was less fraught, and had sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows which I as a child found delightful. The thought of combining potato and dessert suited me just fine. (Does anyone still make this?)
Fourth of July was also fun. There was a picnic, which normally was in the day and didn't have drinking. And unlike New Years and Christmas, you didn't have to compare your life now to where you thought you would be, which always led to depression from a kind of combination of "keeping up with the Joneses" and Chekhovian retrospection.
Fourth of July back then was about being happy and proud you were Americans. It didn't represent Eisenhower or Adlai Stevenson or Richard Nixon. It represented everybody who liked those different men and their different takes on things.
And (McCarthyism aside; and a big aside, huh?) it was easy to be proud of being an American in the '50s. My parents' generation did a great and brave job fighting in that terrifying and seemingly necessary war.
As has been pointed out repeatedly, President Bush, though throwing our borrowed-with-interest money away at Operation Iraqi Freedom like a drunken sailor, has otherwise expected us to go about our lives as if nothing is happening. While in WWII, and with the draft, each and every family was affected, and sacrifices were made and called for.
My father was in the Army, and was part of the D-Day invasion at Normandy Beach. My mother (who hadn't met my father yet) joined the Waves right after high school. Her brother joined the Navy, and worked with the USO with traveling plays. (He used to have this little suitcase with Dear Ruth stenciled on it, which was the name of a lightweight Broadway comedy hit of 1944.) My father's sister Sue joined the Coast Guard. His sister Dorothea joined the army, and like my father was stationed overseas.
My parents met after the war through my father's sister Sue, who was my mother's best friend in high school. They got married in 1947, looking like Myrna Loy and Franchot Tone on their honeymoon in Atlantic City. I was born a respectably timed two years later in 1949.
Growing up, we didn't have a television until I was about 4. There were only a few channels. CBS showed the current-at-the-time hit show I Love Lucy -- families got together to watch it on a weekly basis. I listened to some of the shows from my crib; other times I was allowed to be up a bit later and watch them.
Oddly, television showed plays sometimes -- as a child I saw Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in the Scottish play on TV, I saw the wonderful Julie Harris in Little Moon of Alban, I saw the terrific live performance of Mary Martin and Cyril Richard in Peter Pan. Strangely, they televised Laurence Olivier's movie of Richard III on TV at the same time it opened in theatres, and I thought that Laurence Olivier was Cyril Richard, just doing a darker version of his Captain Hook.
But the other thing I watched from age 6 or so was old movies -- from the '30s and the '40s. These were my parents' popular culture, and back in the '40s when people really went to the movies as a society, those movies reflected back the national character much more than they ever did again.
And the 1940s were filled with movies about World War II, made before American joined the war and while America was still fighting it. The 1942 Best Picture Oscar went to Mrs. Miniver, which told the story of a nice English family who struggle and strive bravely during the Blitz attacks from the Germans. It was in production before America joined the war, but it came out immediately after Pearl Harbor and America's joining the Allies' fight.
And it's true, fighting that war was to protect ourselves, but indeed also to help countries like England, whose people we identified with and didn't want to see swallowed up by fascism. Or then there was Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman decrying the Germans' invading their beloved Paris in Casablanca (the 1943 Best Picture).
Of course, fighting World War II truly was a massive endeavor. And there had been what amounted to a couple of years' public discussion as to whether joining the war was necessary or not. Some were isolationist, and some saw the fascist world threat as something America couldn't avoid. Then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and America jumped forward to "we must join in this fight."
With Germany invading countries back then, and Japan attacking countries, I must say it's much easier to see why we joined WWII than to buy into all those weirdly unconvincing reasons Bush brought up for invading Iraq.
I find it impossible not to re-feel my anger about how Cheney and Bush and Rice manipulated Americans to feel they were in danger from Saddam. We were NEVER in immediate danger of Saddam, we had inspectors in there and we had other countries on our side back then too.
Thinking of the '50s (and the '40s), and how my parents' generation fought bravely and gallantly, and correctly identified a danger necessary to fight, I am filled with a sadness that starting with Vietnam and now again with Iraq, men in power have had intellectual THEORIES that they send young people to war for.
In Vietnam it was the "domino theory," the supposition that if Vietnam went communist (in what was partially a civil war; the Vietcong were South Vietnamese, they weren't North Vietnamese), then bam! the country next to it would go communist, and then more countries, one after another like a row of dominos, and then, I don't know, I guess communist Russia and China would invade us and force us to close up Wall Street and make us all live in communes. And if they chose you, you'd have to be an Olympic athlete whether you wanted to or not. I guess that was the fear... right? And how many men died for that theory?
Going after Osama bin Laden and his followers -- a sick and scary gang, but NOT a country, worth remembering -- made sense.
But as to invading Iraq, the Bush people have changed their story so many times, it's hard to know what the real reason was that made them want to go to war.
I think it was the Project for a New American Century's theory that to plant democracy in a Middle East country would somehow make democracy spread in that area and make the Middle East more stable and friendly to the west.
(The Project, for those who don't know, is a think tank led by conservative William Kristol, which in policy papers has said it wants America to use its military power more, and which advocated invading Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein, going so far as to write President Clinton a 1998 letter urging such an invasion.
Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, and Jeb Bush have all been involved in this think tank, both as "thinkers" (sitting there, in their thinking caps, with smoke coming out their ears) and as signatories to various policy statements. When you know that about all the connections to the Project, it makes it clearer why Richard Clarke and others have said that Bush and Cheney wanted to find connections between 9-11 and Iraq the NEXT DAY after the 9-11 attacks. Already they were planning to invade Iraq. The next day. I think that is an appalling breach of trust, one of countless that this administration has committed. The signing letters are up there too.)
Given his connection to this think tank and its ideas, once Dick Cheney was asked to do the search for a vice president candidate and came up with himself, our country was on the path to follow the Project's theories. Bush was apparently easily convinced this was the way to go.
The idea that the Middle East will be stabilized by ousting Saddam and doing a sort of "insert here" action to spread democracy is just a THEORY, and a debatable one, and I don't like going to war on a theory, and I don't like to have to guess what the government's real reasons for going to war are. (Mushroom cloud, Condoleezza?)
However, I've been trying to wax nostalgic (but having trouble, lol).
So let me finish by praising my parents and my parents' generation for the admirable, honest and effective way they rose to the unavoidable challenge of World War II. Here's to them. And here's to hoping we and some other leaders in the country find a way to emulate them.