Like most boys, I grew up interested in weapons and war, from toy guns to model fighter planes to heavily-armed Transformers. Maybe I was drawn to the simplistic morality of "good guys versus bad guys" and "kill or be killed," or the allure of the power to bring death and destruction when children rarely have control over anything. With a patriotism bred into me from both school and institutions like the Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts, there was also a pride in the idea of fighting and risking one's life for one's country, as well as an image of manliness and heroism that only the military seemed to provide.
In short, I wasn't too different from Ron Kovic, who grew up wanting desperately to join the military so he could defend his country, prove his patriotism and be a hero in the vein of his idol, John Wayne. But after volunteering for the Marines out of high school so he could fight in Vietnam, Kovic was soon exposed to the unheroic horrors of actual war, shattering his naive image of war's nobility that he had carried since a child. And after being paralyzed from the chest down and experiencing the terrible treatment veterans received from both the VA hospital and by Americans who cared little for his sacrifice, his faith in God, country and government was irrevocably shaken.
But Kovic didn't give up on his country -- he redefined his love for it. He wrote a book about his experiences called Born On the Fourth of July and became a vocal activist against the Vietnam war; he continues to fight for peace to this day. And by doing so, he became a different kind of patriot than he ever thought he would be.
In 1989, his book was made into a movie starring Tom Cruise, also called Born On the Fourth of July, which changed my view of war and patriotism forever. See my ReThink Review of Born On the Fourth of July and my discussion with Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks about the film and patriotism below.
For too long, Republicans have claimed to have the monopoly on patriotism and consider their jingoistic definition of patriotism to be the definitive one. And since Teabaggers and the Republican Party are essentially synonymous, patriotism is now being defined as the violent defense of their utopian vision of a conservative America from the influence of non-whites (especially the president), gays, and the scourge of shared responsibility. When conservatives attacked the movie Avatar as being "anti-American," it implied that being "pro-American" means trampling indigenous cultures, destroying the environment, militarism, greed, and cruelty. For Republicans, being pro-America means being against America's elected government and in favor of unelected corporations driven solely by profits. Loving America means never admitting it is wrong -- unless, of course, the Democrats are in charge. For Republicans, patriotism means defending the status quo and rejecting modernity.
Born On the Fourth of July is an excellent reminder that patriotism is more complicated than that. As I said in the review, America is not an infallible God or Mommy blessed with limitless benevolence whose judgments and actions dare not be questioned. While we all start out believing our mothers are the center of the universe, we eventually grow up to realize that our mothers are people too. They make mistakes and often have values shaped in a world that is radically different from the world we live in now. Republicans reject this notion and want desperately to return to their baby state, a simpler time when a benevolent, all-powerful parent provided protection, comfort, perfect justice and never made mistakes.
But this is a fantasy. You can't unlearn the truth about your country or your parents. What Republicans can't understand is that being critical of your mother or your country doesn't for a second mean that you love them any less. And by actively helping our mothers and our country to understand the realities of the world we live in so they can be the great people or country we know they can be -- instead of simply going along with whatever they want, whether it's right, wrong or even good for them -- one can easily argue that we love them even more.
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