Americans rethink what constitutes love of country WAR IN THE GULF


February 03, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac

Even as he was being locked up, anti-war protester Richard Steineman called himself a patriot.

So did the judge who ordered him to write five letters to U.S. soldiers serving in the Persian Gulf as part of his sentence for trespassing and resisting arrest during an anti-war protest.

"I have no problems with his patriotism," said Cincinnati Judge Sylvia Hendon, who hopes that he makes clear in the letters that while he opposes U.S. policy in the gulf he does support the troops there.

"He is a man who has searched his conscience, and he has followed it. That's a quality to admire," the judge said. "For those who are genuinely and sincerely involved in the war effort, or the anti-war effort, I applaud their patriotism."

With the nation involved in another war, America is awash in patriotism. But there are signs that it may be a different brand.

It is a kind of self-conscious patriotism, shaped by past wars and protests. As Americans learn more about the gulf war -- and take stands -- they are beginning to redefine what it means to be a patriot.

For a growing number, it means more than flying the flag or wearing a yellow ribbon. It means asking questions, engaging in debate, examining one's conscience. And, for the first time in America, being a patriot has come to mean being for the war -- or against it.

In a series of interviews, observers of the American psyche offered their perspective on the changing nature of patriotism. And four Americans -- a physical education teacher from a small town in Missouri, a San Francisco communications consultant, a social worker from New Jersey, and Mr. Steineman, who operates a shelter for the homeless in Cincinnati -- discussed what they're doing to express their personal forms of patriotism, and why.


"What do we mean by patriotism, anyway?" asked Chicago storyteller Studs Terkel, who chronicled people's memories of World War II in "The Good War." "Anybody can wave a flag and call themselves a patriot. That's as phony as a $3 bill. I think we have to redefine what patriotism is."

Mr. Terkel said he believes there is too little dissent and debate in America. "Challenging authority if you think something is wrong is what democracy is about," he said.

"At the moment, the flags are waving and [President] Bush is being backed, but it's an uneasy sort of acquiescence. There is no question that deep down, people have questions they haven't asked yet."

In Washington, former U.S. Sen. George S. McGovern -- World War II bomber pilot and opponent of the Vietnam War -- said he continues to struggle to define patriotism.

"You protest a war, and you feel that you stand alone," he said. "The only motive you have is patriotism. I think honest dissent is as high an act of patriotism as anything a person can demonstrate. This time, I think most people are willing to accept the fact that there are honest differences of opinion."

In people's discussions of the gulf crisis, the specter of th Vietnam War holds fast. For many, it has framed their sense of patriotism.

"The Vietnam experience soured a lot of Americans on patriotism," said Louis Galambos, a historian at the Johns Hopkins University. "American patriotism was qualified in a way by that experience. It created more skepticism about government policy, something that runs deep in many parts of the population. People are beginning to think harder. As a nation, we've accumulated more experience, and we're becoming less naive.

"We're becoming a wiser people in part because of our experience. And wiser people ask questions," said Mr. Galambos, who is editor of the papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"Normally, once a war starts, the forces of nationalism tend to align with those who support war. Usually, there is tremendous force in the idea of joining hands to support the nation. That pressure has been tremendous in the past -- much greater than it is today. In the past, a form of nationalism and patriotism merged.

"Today, for the first time, you can be patriotic and be on either side."

At Cottey College in Nevada, Mo., 59-year-old Donna Needha feels good about the yellow ribbons and American flags that drape the campus and the community. A supporter of the the U.S. intervention, she has joined students at the two-year women's college in Prayer Shield, a special chapel service.

"I consider myself patriotic. I believe in the flag, the U.S. and the freedoms afforded us because of that," said Ms. Needham, who has taught physical education at the college for 28 years.

"But I have difficulty in identifying where the anti-war people come from. I get a queasy feeling when I watch anything about that on TV. I can't honestly say they are Americans.

"Yes, I believe in freedom of speech, but personally, it is difficult for me to consider them Americans."

To James Fallows, a Vietnam War resister and Washington edito Atlantic Monthly, Americans are exhibiting a largely hollow patriotism that requires no national sacrifice.

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