On Contact: Patriotism & dissent with Danny Sjursen
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the nature of patriotism with West Point graduate and US Army combat veteran, Danny Sjursen.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the nature of patriotism with West Point graduate and army combat veteran, Danny Sjursen.
DS: It's the idea that values legality, constitutions, national interests are all important, but what's important and where it differs from the nationalist dissent, is that it sort of is willing to reject nationalism in general. It's willing to see the ills of nationalism, the ills of the organized orders that are often imaginary and understanding that like the prophetic dissent, there's a kinship to humanity and that we ought to be humble and provide some sort of ethical foundation that really does infuse all of the other types. This is the rarest form but it is out there and it's funny because it is one of the most quickly denigrated of the dissents. And folks will, you know, obviously make fun of people who think of themselves as citizens of humanity rather than a nation.
CH: When Rory Fanning, a burly veteran who served in the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion and was deployed in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2004, appeared at a Donald Trump rally in Chicago, he was wearing the top half of his combat fatigues. As he moved through the crowd, dozens of Trump supporters shouted greeting such as, "Welcome home, brother. And, "Thank you for your service." Then came the protest that shut the rally down. Fanning, one of the demonstrators, pulled out a flag that read, "Vets against racism, war, and empire." "Immediately someone threw a drink on me," he told me. I got hit from behind in the head three or four times. It was quite the switch, quite pivotal on me, questioning the narrative, questioning Donald Trump's narrative and I was suddenly out of their good graces. Nationalists claim to be patriots do not really venerate veterans. They only venerate veterans who read from the approved patriotic script. America's the greatest and most powerful country on Earth. Those we fight are depraved barbarians. Our enemies deserve death. God is on our side. Victory is assured. Our soldiers and Marines are heroes. Deviate from this cant, no matter how many military tours you have served and you become despicable. The vaunted patriotism of the right is about self-adulation. It is a raw lust for racism and violence. It is blind subservience to the power of the state and it works to censor the reality of war and shut down the voices of true patriots such as Fanning. Joining me to discuss the nature of patriotism is Danny Sjursen, a former Army Major who did combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the author of the book "Patriotic Dissent." So you break patriotism down into three different forms. Why don't you lie those out for us?
DS: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I like alliteration, but they all start with P and the first one, the one that you just described at that, you know, Rory Fanning moment is the pageantry patriotism. And the vast majority of Americans, especially but not exclusively on the right, adhere to this. That's, you know, thank you for your service. It's bumper stickers, it's maybe pick up your tab at TGI Friday's at the airport on your way to the next deployment. It does not really deal with the reality of the experience of war or why we're fighting them and what they're actually like. Then the second type I call, you know, passive principle patriotism, but it really could just be called passive patriotism. This is the polite imperial stuff. This is the Obama MSNBC variety where maybe they're not quite as overt in their flag waving, maybe they're not as quick to denigrate veterans who were against the war but they'll ignore them. They pretend to quote, you know, Martin Luther King but they sanitize him. And so they, too, don't really dig into the realities of wars experience or why we're fighting them, but the rarer form, and there are folks out there who, like yourself, have been pushing this before it was cool, if it's even cool, is the participatory, the proactive sort of patriotism which is to say, I'm a patriot because I want my country to live up to its supposed, you know, aspirations regardless of our flawed history. I think it's a patriotism of dissent, as I called it, a willingness to follow for a military--the Constitution. We don't take our oath to the President alone or our commanders alone but rather to enemies foreign and domestic. So when your country, when your republic becomes an empire, and maybe it always has been, it becomes a duty, I think, to patriotically dissent, and so that's how I break the three down.
CH: Let's start with the pageantry patriotism because I think that so much of that pageantry patriotism, and this is the flag waving and the flyovers and singing the anthem, which has infused our sports--professional sports, is really about self-adulation. It's about elevating ourselves through that disease of nationalism. And the flipside of nationalism is always racism. It has almost nothing to do with the veterans and you write about how because it's a volunteer force, the rich don't serve. You had a figure. I think it was the, what, combined figures of people who entered the military from Ivy League schools was like six or something. So talk a little about the kind of cynicism and hypocrisy behind that first form of patriotism.
DS: I do think that a lot of the pageantry patriotism is driven by personal insecurity. This is the sort of the Chickenhawk Syndrome. There are veterans, you know, who are on the right who peddle in this, but a lot of them are civilians who've never been near a shot fired in anger. Another thing that's interesting about this is not only is it driven by insecurity, but it is driven by, like, hyper nationalism, which really can border on fascism. And you've written a lot about this. For example, your status as a veteran will not save you, I found and many have, if you speak out. And so because you're going against a narrative--and really the veterans in a pageantry form are tools, right? They're used, they're co-opted, they're hijacked. And in fact, I can't tell you how many times I've watched veterans be used to bolster one argument or the other. In other words, I must be right because this many generals support me. I mean, only look at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, you know, bringing their loads of generals on but it happens at a micro level on social media. What's interesting finally is that the flag waving and the anthems and the flyovers during COVID, which I thought were obscene, is, you know, the comedian Dave Chappelle said that he figured out what White people's kryptonite is and it was, you know, kneeling during the anthem. And it was funny but it's--but it's also real because the minute you step outside of, you know, the Pledge of Allegiance or the anthem, many of which are actually relatively new creations, you know, from the Cold War, yeah, you're denigrated. This is--I think it's more than symbolic. I think it's actually destructive and dangerous that the vast majority of Americans peddle in this, you know, pageantry patriotism.
CH: Isn't there, by engaging in that pageantry patriotism, a kind of, a sense of personal empowerment on the part of the "patriot" even though they're not in the military, it's that close identification with the military, the ability of the military to deliver lethal force. You even see it by these people who venerate, you know, police departments.
DS: Well, it's sort of the disease of the caveat. And what I mean is how many folks have you read on social media or even on the pages of The New York Times who have to begin any discussion of the war or the protest by saying how good they are to veterans? I mean, they'll almost list off their qualifications. How many veterans they know, how many times they've picked up a check. So it's that, it's the insecurity of that, but it's also, like, you gather an army behind you of, you know, I stand with the troops, therefore whatever I say must be truth. And it has that weight even if I'm not myself a veteran. And so I do think that what you're talking about here is there is a lot of, like, self-identification that goes on with this and you don't even have to be in the military. I've had folks who are civilian Chickenhawks who have basically told me that they're better patriots than me, you know, because they're good to veterans versus, you know, my own experience fighting the wars that they laud.
CH: I want to draw that line between people who experience combat as you did and people who didn't. I once did an event with Norman Mailer in which he was quite obnoxious to everyone else in the room saying that he and I were the only real men in the room because we'd been through combat. And having been through combat, that kind of bravado, it just smelled wrong to me and it was only when I read his obituary that it turned out he'd been a cook. But combat veterans, and it's only one out of twenty, is that right, of people within the military actually going into combat, the rest are logistical which is extremely important but play logistical roles. But combat veterans, how--when they come back, and I'm--and regardless of what their political persuasion is, how do most of them respond to that form of patriotism, that jingoism?
DS: I mean, it actually thickens a lot of them, even the--even the more, you know, politically conservative ones and there are lots. You know, some of it is, it's easily dismissed. We make fun of it in my experience, you know, like the guy who comes over to your table on your way back from Afghanistan and he needs to tell you about how much he supports you and what he did when he was a cook, you know, in the peacetime army or something and the bravado of how great you are for spreading freedom. When that person walks away, I mean, there--there's laughing. There's a story I remember, I don't know if it's a pocketful. It's in a memoir of, you know, John Wayne shows up in the Pacific at a wounded, you know, field hospital and he's dressed like a--like a cowboy in the movies.
CH: He was in Hawaii. He was in--he was in a hospital in Hawaii for Marines.
DS: That's right. And then he basically, you know, he's wearing his, like, old west outfit, right? And, of course, he avoided service and then supposedly he's, like, kind of jeered out of the place. Now, that may well have happened.
CH: Well, they--that's a fact. They threw bedpans at him. They drove him out of them.
DS: It's--so that's one of my favorite stories of all time actually. And I'm--and I'm glad that it's fully true but it would've been true in a way that friction can be true even if it wasn't because that does happen. A lot of us don't have a lot of time for that. And I don't speak for all veterans and I'm always careful about that, but in my pretty broad experience, that's been the case, even with the ones who agree with me disagree with me completely politically like many of my soldiers do.
CH: So let's talk about the second form of patriotism, you write about the passively principal MSNBC style form of patriotism. And remember, boy, they were pretty quick to get rid of Phil Donahue and Jesse Ventura and anyone else who--Jesse himself is a Vietnam vet, right? I think. They--who didn't mouth the appropriate narrative about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so it--there is a subtle difference. But let's look at it. I mean, the--you know, you talk about it as, you know, it's also a surface level kind of patriotism. And while that kind of patriotism may decry the excesses, "excesses" of the military, they also kneel before the shrine of American militarism.
DS: Absolutely. This is the polite sort of version of, you know, patriotism. I fell for it. A lot of folks did. When I was in Iraq in late 2007, I was a big believer that, say, Barack Obama would be able to right the ship. You know, I even supported him in some tangible ways out of uniform, you know, in Southern Indiana when I was stationed at Fort Knox after my deployment. And the idea was, and this is the disease of the, you know, of the passive patriotism is that it's bad apples that are causing the, you know, the misgivings or misbehavior. And so if we get rid of the George W. Bushes of the world, if we get some of the neocons out of office, then we'll right the ship because what makes us great is our values they say, right? But they still will not question the systemic ills of those supposed values, the structures that create it, and when you do, like, you know, Jesse Ventura or Phil Donahue did, you are immediately, immediately just gone, you know, the establishment won't have you anymore. They will not invite you back as you know. And this is almost, in some ways, more dangerous because I prefer plain language and I prefer to know sort of my enemy. I like it when they place themselves out there in a way that, you know, the monster Trump often does. One of the ways you know finally that this passive patriotism is nefarious is to watch on MSNBC and CNN how fast the people they had denigrated so deeply from the Bush administration are brought on as regular guests and sort of rehabilitated as born again American heroes in response to the more coarse imperialism of Trump.
CH: Right. When we come back, we'll continue our discussion about patriotism with Danny Sjursen. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the nature of patriotism with Danny Sjursen. So we were talking about these kind of passive MSNBC patriots and you call them fearful patriots. Why?
DS: Well, they're fearful because, like the Democratic Party that they often sort of are inflected with or related to, they're terrified of being called un-American or unpatriotic so they're constantly hedging and couching. They will only go so far in, you know, calling out, you know, this misbehavior or the wrong wars or the wrong administration, they have to make it about individual bad apples because if they push too far, they know that they will pay at the ballot box, for example, which they worship as their own scared cow, because the worst thing you can be in American history, we have found and I've written in the book and have a lot of evidence, is to be antiwar. It never pays politically in any long term sense just as the Whigs or the Democrats after Vietnam or especially in 1980, right? When Reagan, of course, canonizes the good war in Vietnam the just caused.
CH: About the liberals, you know, and I experienced this at the calls to invade Iraq, it was primarily the MSNBC, the--these passive patriots who are used to denigrate antiwar people who are speaking out about the war, such as myself, because purportedly, they were good liberals with values. So, you know, figures like Michael Ignatieff who was a friend of mine, we're both on NPR the day the war was launched, he arguing why we should go to war and me arguing against. It wasn't the hard right-wing, although they were very angry and I got death threats from them and stuff but the more effective discrediting came from these passive patriots.
DS: Yeah, they will, you know, bring them out to denigrate folks who step outside those boundaries and it is more effective because if you have a polite liberal with a large following saying, "Look, look, look, I'm also, you know, sort of against what Bush is doing for example, or what Trump is doing now, but I stay within the bounds. I'm not a radical like Noam Chomsky or Cornel West or Chris Hedges, you know. I'm not a radical like some of these conscientious objectors, the few that there have been in the volunteer force, you know. I still believe that America is a force for good in the world and these folks have--they're--you know, one of the things they'll throw at you all the time is that you're angry. It's a very important pejorative. "Oh, you're angry, they're just angry. They're frustrated." Or they'll go to your character and say you didn't have the professional success you wanted and that's why you're speaking out. It's way more effective to have the polite liberal sort of attack the antiwar or the anti-imperialism protester than to put, you know, a MAGA hat wearing guy who is going to make you maybe look kind of rational.
CH: They also couch the necessity of war in "liberal values," you know, what Samantha Power calls humanitarian intervention. And so you liberate the people of Iraq, George Packer was selling this line, or you liberate the women of Afghanistan, and yet you and I know that once you start dropping cruise missiles on people or Hellfire missiles, the whole idea of human rights is a joke. Talk a little bit about how they reframe the argument for war.
DS: Yeah, this is like the humanitarianism or the responsibility to protect Kennard. Both sides pedal in it. For example, you--when, you know, when there were no weapons of destruction, weapons of mass destruction, when there was no Al-Qaeda tie, then it became about democracy, it became about getting rid of the tyrant. And so you saw the argument being, at least on the right side, was, yeah, but Saddam was bad, we got rid of him. In Afghanistan, that's taken on an, I think, an even more cynical tone when we say, "We can't leave, ever," apparently because of women's rights, because of girls in schools. But that, of course, misunderstands the context and doesn't understand that we empowered many of the folks who, you know, were against women's education throughout the 1980s. That has been the case across the Greater Middle East. And if one thinks that the war in Afghanistan was ever about women's rights, I mean, that is so paltry intellectually that it's almost hard to imagine because why did we only go in for vengeance after we were attacked? Because women were being executed in stadiums long before that. And we also have told our own soldiers to turn the other--turn an eye away from a massive buggery, right? Massive child rape of our "allied" militia and warlord. So this is--this is a myth and this is a fiction, and it's dangerous as hell.
CH: Since you brought it up, let's--before we get the last form of patriotism, also talk about how women are treated within the military. I talked to a woman officer. She was actually Canadian, asked her, she said she was in Kendor and I said what was the most, you know, what was the worst part of being there? She said going to the porta potties and making sure I didn't get raped by these marines.
DS: Yeah. Well, obviously rape is a, sexual assault of all forms is a massive problem in the military, always has been. It's particularly bad at the military academies. A recent book by a law professor currently at West Point and a whistleblower, federally protected whistleblower, talks about how West Point, for example, and the other academies have misled the public about the stats on sexual assault, you know. They've said it's the same as other colleges. That's been proved demonstrably false. This--you know, and we also tokenize women, you know, we'll say--you know, we'll take them to talk to Afghan women, you know, because that's the culture they only understand, but then they'll go back to the base and have to look over their shoulder and be told paternalistically but accurately that they need to have a buddy everywhere they go, in the dark, on the base because they might get raped in their own camp and yet we say you're the only ones who could talk to Afghan women. I mean, it's so muddled that it's scary. It's gross.
CH: Let's talk about the last form of patriotism which I think you courageously embody, and that's Participatory Principled Patriotism or Patriotic Dissent.
DS: This is rare, more rare than it should be, especially among veterans in the all- volunteer force. It's hard. What it involves is saying that I'm going to take the same sense of duty and urgency that I was told to within the military in invasions, in occupations, and I'm going to apply it to protecting the values that I want to model in the United States, our aspirations, and making this, you know, a better place and it's very cliched and it's very idealistic, and it might even be futile. But throughout American history, and I really try to demonstrate that, I mean, ultimately I'm a historian, I try to demonstrate it in the book, at every major crisis of imperialism in American history, there have been voices, journalists, artists, and soldiers who have decided to step out and participate, right? And that's more than liking something on Twitter. And I think that it is--even the small numbers that push back have an enormous effect even if the tactical victories are slim.
CH: You said--you write, the first strand of dissent is the prophetic, what did you mean?
DS: Well, you know, there's a lot of discussion about the role of religion and, of course, this is something that you have done so much work on. Some folks who have dissented have really been informed by faith, of a variety of faiths, right? From, you know, almost like a secondary humanist faith all the way up to organized religion. And it really does inform them, and so this is the new testament, non-heretical Christianity recently with the National Guard and maybe the 82nd Airborne being called out to American cities, one of my organizations, About Face: Veterans Against the War, has put out a stand-down order, telling the soldiers, you know, you don't have to shoot folks in the street.
CH: The second tradition of dissent is the Republican form of dissent. What's that?
DS: Yes. So these are the supposed libertarians, these are the small-r republican types, this is the constitution crowd, and I don't-- and I'm--and I'm not, you know, pulling ad hominem on this. I mean, it's an important one, the idea that we have to hew to the supposed values of the Founding Fathers, of course, they were so contested, it's difficult, but in general, this is the idea that imperialism, the racism that's, you know, just inherent to it, is somehow, you know, against the values of the republic, against the laws of the republic. In many ways, this is sort of a litigious version of dissent, but I think it's an important one. It--all of these versions that we're talking about are often intertwined, but you see this. And I think this is the reason why I write for as many libertarian websites and publications as I do liberal ones because in many cases, this is sort of the libertarian dissent against imperialism.
CH: Well, you're right about the Shays' Rebellion which was led by veterans of the revolutionary war who were screwed over by the oligarchs and there was quite a difference if go on and talk about the Founding Fathers' attitude toward the Shays' as it comes from your book, the Shays' Rebellion between Jefferson and Washington. Washington wanted to crush it and Jefferson cheered it on.
DS: You know, Daniel Shays in Western Massachusetts, I mean, just to understand, like, you know, he and the other veterans, they were being basically taxed to death and they didn't have any hard currency. I'm not going to go into the history but this guy had been a hero in the Continental Army and even given a sword by Lafayette, the Marquis de Lafayette, the aristocrat from France and hero, so many towns named after him, he had to pawn his sword in order to try to pay some of the taxes to the oligarchs. Washington thought this was a major threat and we needed a more centralized federal constitution. Jefferson, of course, said, you know, that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants, and a little bit rebellion is a good thing and we should had a continuous revolution. Jefferson's a flawed character but I tend to hew in his direction on this one.
CH: The third strand of Patriotic Dissent, you call The Nationalist, what's that?
DS: You know, this--in a very simplified and I think misunderstood way, this has some of the America first aspect to it. It's been misunderstood, the isolationists weren't quite as isolationists or anti-Semitic as most of them had made--been made out to be, but it's the idea that national interest should come first and that far-flung wars and adventures, and imperialism is ultimately not in our interest. One of the ways you see this, and it does have a dark side, it has a positive side obviously but it also has a dark side during the Spanish-American War and the pacification of the Philippines, there was even some racism that was in, you know, infused in this nationalist dissent where it was--we can't--we shouldn't be in the Philippines, we shouldn't bring the Philippines into the empire or make it a state because there's too many brown people there, and that's not in our interest as a nation. So, you know, this is a--this is a complicated version of dissent but it really does reflect, I think, some of the rhetoric--and not only but some of the rhetoric from campaign of Donald Trump.
CH: Let's close with the last, the fourth and final tradition of dissent you call Cosmopolitan, what's that?
DS: Yeah. You know, broadly, it's a citizen of the world platitude, but it's--I think really it's a--it's a combination of all the others. It's the idea that values, legality, constitutions, national interests, are all important but what's important and where it differs from the nationalist dissent is that it sort of is willing to reject nationalism in general. It's willing to see the ills of nationalism, the ills of the organized borders that are often imaginary and understanding that like the prophetic dissent, there's a--there's a kinship to humanity and that we ought to be humble and provide some sort of ethical foundation that really does infuse all of the other types. This is the rarest form, but it is out there and it's funny because it is one of the most quickly denigrated of the dissents and folks will, you know, obviously make fun of people who think of themselves as citizens of humanity rather than a nation. And in many cases, it does not pick up the traction that the more honed in say Republican or Libertarian dissent gets.
CH: Well, it's to see yourself in the face of those who are denigrated as the enemy.
DS: This is the most important thing for me. Eugene Debs said that he knew that he was no better than the meanest among us, right? When he was sentenced to federal prison for being against World War I. When I wrote Ghost Riders of Baghdad, my first book, I'd fought long and hard not to have the martial Humvees on the cover. The picture that's on the back is the one that I wanted on the front because I thought it best described my book and it's a girl blowing a bubble, an Iraqi girl, while a fully armed soldier is standing on the corner. To me what changed my view was seeing myself in that Iraqi girl and thousands of others.
CH: Well, you do great work, Danny, thank you very much. That was Danny Sjursen talking about his book, "Patriotic Dissent."