Adolph, Heinz, And Poland

Why Johnny Fights

March 17, 2003

In my daily snowstorm of email I find furious appeals to patriotism, usually addressed to large lists of recipients. The writers invoke The Founding Fathers, urge fealty, and counsel solidarity with all the whoop and holler of a camp meeting. I'm puzzled. Why is patriotism thought to be a virtue? It seems to me a scourge.

Judging by my mail, patriotism has little to do with a fondness for one's country. Yes, many Americans like America. They reflect affectionately on Arizona's painted deserts and the wooded hollows of Tennessee, on the music of Appalachia and New Orleans, the rude vigor and brashness of a remarkable people, the rich accents of Brooklyn and Mississippi, all the things that give a sense of home and attachment in a large world. But they do not want blood. They speak quietly. Apparently they are not patriots. They do not use the word.

The email patriots are different. They growl and threaten, and seem less to appreciate their country than to hate others. They remind me of nothing so much as bar-room drunks looking for a fight. Their letters seethe with bitterness and begin with denunciations of liberals and the communist media (by which they mean any that fail to agree with them). They don't eat French fries. They hate. They would make, and in fact did make, excellent Nazis.

The difference between patriotism and love of country seems to be the difference between an inward-looking fondness and an outward-looking hostility. The email patriots regard any disagreement as treachery and softness. To doubt the wisdom or necessity of a war, any war, is treason; any inclination to think for oneself is evidence of being in the enemy's camp.

This is everywhere the rule. There were Japanese who thought that attacking the United States was not a conspicuously bright idea. They were squelched by patriots. GIs loved duty in Tokyo.

Malignant patriotism explains the attack, by a large heavily armed industrial power, against a weak and bedraggled nation so helpless as to be conquered in weeks. I refer of course to the Nazi assault on Poland. The Wehrmacht, like the Imperial Japanese Army, was awash in patriotism. It is in large part why they fought so well. No emotion is more usefully manipulable by governments with misbehavior in mind.

The connections among patriotism, military service, Christianity, and morality are tangled and fascinating. The first two appear to me to be incompatible with the second two. Consider Heinz, a German youth joining his armed forces in, say, 1937. Enlisting was then, as now, a patriotic thing to do. Heinz was probably a decent sort. Most people are. He probably had little interest in Poland, a minor creation which posed no threat to Germany. He liked beer and girls.

Then, come September of 1939, he found himself butchering Poles. The war had nothing to do with defense. The German attack was savage, unprovoked, and murderous. And why was Heinz killing people he didn't know? Because his government told him it was his patriotic duty. Which is to say that being in the Wehrmacht meant forfeiting moral independence to a dark squatty effeminate Aryan blond superman. Oh good.

It is curious. If Heinz had decided to kill Poles as a free-lance, he would have been called a mass-murderer, hanged, and had a movie made about him. If as a soldier he had decided not to kill Poles, having no reason to kill them, he might have been shot as a mutineer. But when he killed them unreflectingly because he had been told to, he became a minor national hero and and, if extraordinarily effective in the killing, received a medal.

Fortunately for Adolph, refusals on moral grounds to kill the enemy, any enemy, are rare. In human affairs, morality is more than window-dressing, but not much more. Lust, hormones, and the pack instinct take easy precedence. Thus armies seldom say en masse, "No. We think it the wrong thing to do."

When the war goes badly, patriotism becomes compulsory. Heinz, driving toward Stalingrad, did not have the choice of changing his mind. Deserters tend to be shot. Enormous moral suasion serves to quell reluctance to die. Going against the herd is unpleasant. Governments understand this well.

Patriotism often needs propping, and gets it. Conscription serves to make fight those who otherwise wouldn't. (The ancient Persians used whips to force unwilling soldiers to go forward. Firing squads work as well, and do not tire the arm.) Societies punish draft-dodgers, except in the case of Republican presidents, and revile conscientious objectors as cowards, traitors, and homosexuals. Deserters particularly suffer heavy punishment, because if soldiers in a long nasty war could escape without penalty, most would.

Heinz, being German, was probably a Christian. Soldiers often believe themselves to be Christians. There is remarkably little in the New Testament to encourage aggressive slaughter, yet Christian countries have regularly attacked everybody within reach. (So of course have most other countries.)

Heinz cannot serve two masters. Either he puts the authority of religion above that of government, or he kills anyone he is told to kill. As a rule he compartmentalizes, accepts official justifications, and obeys.

Why does a coalition of Christian nations send troops at great expense to the Middle East to attack a Moslem nation offering no threat? I refer of course to the Crusades. The answer is simple: Humankind has a profound instinct to form warring groups. Crips and Bloods, Redskins and Cowboys, Catholics and Protestants, liberals and conservatives. Because a thin veneer of reason floats like pond scum on our instincts, we invent tolerable rationalizations: We must take the Holy Lands from the infidels. God says so.

In Chicago, young males form nations, which they call by such names as the Vice Lords, the P Stones, the Black Gangster Disciples. They have ministers, pomp and circumstance, hierarchy, and intense loyalty to the gang. They wear uniforms of sorts-hats with bills pointed to the left or right, chosen colors-and they fight for turf, which is empire measured in blocks. The gangs of Chicago are international relations writ small.

Patriotism is most dangerous when mixed with religion. Both give high purpose to low behavior. Worst are the fundamentalists, the Ayatollahs and born-agains, the various Christian Wahabis and Islamic Cromwells. A fundamentalist believes that any idea wandering into his mind comes from On High. Actually he is making it up. He confuses himself with God, which is not a good thing when he is a bit loony to begin with. Fundamentalists usually are.

Usually wrong, but unfamiliar with doubt. I can't think of a better ground for policy.