Posted by: Jeff | November 30, 2009

The Empty Stage of Righteous Valor

Will Wilkinson, whom I’ve linked to before, is an interesting dude. That’s a rather diplomatic way of saying that he pisses me off a lot, but I find the challenges posed by his writing to be informative and at times rewarding. And every so often he hits one out of the park.

His latest column at The Week Magazine is one such instance. He starts with a minor incident during a plane ride, when an attendant took to the P.A. and encouraged the passengers to applaud an American soldier who happened to be coming home from Iraq on the flight. From there he builds to one of the best take-downs of the collective American nationalist ego I’ve read in quite a while.

I hesitated to join the applause.

Hadn’t we known for years that the war was predicated on misinformation? Were we all so ready to agree that it was keeping Americans safe? It was, in fact, killing and wounding thousands upon thousands of Americans–many more than were killed on 9/11. Our troops, in turn, have killed tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis who did nothing to any of us. Maybe the soldier on the airplane signed up to keep me safe and to protect our freedom. But why should we all have to agree that his choice was free of false assumptions? Why should we be expected to display our gratitude, to put our hands together, for what may in the end be a senseless waste of life and a squandering of national power?

Yet all of this is expected of us. By a flight attendant in an American flag tie. So I hesitated. But sooner or later we all feel the ugly nudge of conformism and make some small surrender to keep up appearances. On that juddering plane descending through the clouds, it seemed worth communicating that I was not, after all, on the side of the terrorists.

So I clapped, lightly. I clapped despite my conviction that we passengers were only encouraging the next cohort of young people to walk into the recruiter’s office, into the next war, with too little reservation. I clapped though I believed that the public praise of martial virtue encourages a martial culture in which war is seen not as a gruesome tragedy but as a stage for the performance of righteous valor. I clapped though such warm and willing applause only reinforces a deeply ingrained American habit of easy patriotism so mindless and self-satisfied that we cannot see the brazen moral relativism of it. This is our war, so it is just. These are our troops, so they are heroes. Even to hint that this is not so is to invite the withering scorn of polite society. I clapped.

I know the feeling.

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