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The Dangers of Patriotism in Serbia

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Hotel lobbies are strange places, and the canned music they play can be even stranger. But, sometimes, the juxtaposition of place, time and melody combines and hits a target deep inside the heart triggering explosive thoughts.

Here in Belgrade, Americans are not uniformly welcomed. The vestiges of the United Nations-sanctioned bombing by NATO forces during the Kosovo War remain visible here, even as the invisible marks of fierce nationalism and international condemnation lie hidden in Serbians' psyche just beneath the surface of daily life. As a visitor here, I am keenly aware of this history and the events that occurred in my lifetime.

So it was with a sense of the surreal that I listened to the music projected over the loudspeakers in my hotel's lobby. Not just any piano music, but very specifically, one of the most patriotic contemporary American songs: Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." Seriously.

Now, this particular song caught national attention in 1984, and then gained in popularity and prominence during the Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and most recently with the success of the American raid that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death in 2011. I know it best from hometown rodeos in Colorado and Wyoming. So strong are my associations with this particular melody and lyrics that the experience of hearing it is inextricably linked to mental images of a rodeo queen galloping with the American flag streaming above her rhinestone-studded cowboy-hatted head.

This is why I was so utterly taken aback when the sedate piano version of "God Bless the USA" wafted through the air here in Belgrade. At first, I thought there had to a live pianist -- an ex-pat American, no doubt -- who slipped in a little hometown melody for the sake of nostalgia and remembrance. But, no, the waiter informed me. The song, like all the others before and after, was simply on a playlist downloaded from "somewhere" and played here everyday. How weird, how very, very weird.

Weird, because this is a song of American patriotism playing in a country that provided some of the most horrifying examples of late 20th-century nationalism and paid for it, in part, with justice meted out by American fliers. This is a righteous song for those who pledge allegiance to the USA. It is a song of national pride, which comes close to nationalism, and therein lies the complexity and nuance.

There's a fine line between constructive pride of country, culture and history, and the devastating metastatic outgrowth of a nationalism that perpetrates genocide. Patriotic songs surface on both sides of that line, and such stirrings in the breast of patriots cross national boundaries and require vigilance among us all.

So what does it mean for an American to listen to this song in the Serbian capital? What does it signify that the Serbian staff hum the melody daily yet are ignorant of the lyrics? And, could it be that this song resonated in the minds of servicemen who were proud to be American as they participated in the NATO bombing of Belgrade and put their lives at risk to protect the rights of others? I wonder about these questions as I silently sing the lyrics.

I am proud to be American, here and now, gazing at buildings that still bear witness both to those who fought against the poison of nationalism and those who suffered beyond description during the genocide. It's a heavy thing to remember and even more important that we never forget.