Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

We Need a New Patriotism, One That Embraces Dissent

The author joined the Marines, only to discover how much that was immoral and wrong was being done in the name of the flag.

As the Fourth of July approaches, the usual parades, picnics, and fireworks are set to commence as Old Glory is unfurled from sea to shining sea. Compared to other nations, America is a fervently patriotic country. Every year, Americans of all political persuasions come together to celebrate the birth of our nation. The focal point of every gathering and parade is the singular symbol of the nation: the flag. 

What is the state of American patriotism today? As a citizen who followed the call of the flag into the military, I think Independence Day is a proper time to share some gained perspective. I signed up to serve in 2009 brimming with patriotic pride, and in 2018, after voluntarily resigning my commission in the Marines, I was honored to be invited to attend TAC’s annual foreign policy conference. Having written several articles for the magazine about military reform, I accepted an invitation to participate on a panel titled “Veterans and the Forever War: Recent Vets on Military Reform and U.S. Foreign Policy.” I considered myself a patriot in 2009 and I still do today. So what’s changed?

I came to realize over the course of my service that patriotism might sometimes mean condemning your country. Not because you hate your home, of course, but because you love it.

When I was a junior in high school, my guidance counselor suggested that I apply for a spot in Buckeye Boy’s State, an eight-day summer program sponsored by the American Legion. The program taught me the basics of how the Ohio government worked. I applied, along with a classmate who also shared a love of history and political science, and we were both accepted. That session in the summer of 2002 was held on the campus of Bowling Green University in northern Ohio. The facilitators of the course were all veterans.

Every night, after the daily routines of civics workshops, legislative sessions, and debates, the hundreds of attendees crammed into the gymnasium for a speech from a selected presenter. Most of the speakers were either veterans or Republicans from Ohio’s state legislature. The country was still ablaze with “rally around the flag” syndrome following the attacks of September 11. After some stirring quip from a speaker invoking American greatness, thousands of young men would break out into chants of “USA! USA! USA!” It seemed like the patriotic thing to do: stay with the herd, yell as loud as you could. 

Returning to our senior year of high school in 2003, we were glued to the news as the Iraq war unfolded. We felt pride when we ate our “freedom fries” at local restaurants, shaming the French for not joining the coalition of the willing. We trusted our leaders: they would do what was right for our country, we reasoned. We weren’t alone: polls on the eve of the war showed public opinion overwhelmingly in favor of military action. My classmate would go on to attend West Point, while I chose the Marine route through Officer Candidate School following four years at Ohio State University. We both agreed that as young, able-bodied citizens, we owed the country something in a time of war. 

The first several years in the military ran smoothly, and my conception of patriotism did not change much: stay in step, support the flag wherever she went. While in California for training in military occupational school, I had an encounter with a civilian outside a local off-base gym that at the time baffled me. I was walking to my vehicle and was trailed by another man also leaving the gym. He asked me whether I was in the Marines (our haircuts usually give us away). I said I was, yes sir. He then said, “Well welcome home.” I knew he meant well and just assumed I’d been deployed, but I was still in training to become a pilot. I calmly corrected him, saying that eventually I would deploy. My well-wisher paused for a few seconds, looking confused, then said, “Well you still stood on a wall with a gun, didn’t you?” Stunned, I just chuckled politely and kept walking. It was only near the end of my service that I came to understand what he’d meant. 

I found so much that was incorrect and immoral in the military in the coming years: misaligned priorities, a lack of basic readiness, exercises reduced to Hollywood-level propaganda, the astronomical waste of taxpayer dollars with a constant desire for more, political correctness, the calculated deceit and open lies of our senior officers, and so much more that could be detailed at length. But to focus the conversation within the boundaries of patriotism and Independence Day, the thing that bothered me the most, and what turned me into a dissident, was how everything that was immoral and wrong was being done in the name of the flag, in the name of allegiance to the ideals of America.

The well-wishing civilian just mentioned is a perfect example of the moral dilemma facing patriotic Americans today. I didn’t know it when I joined in 2009, but a new epoch had begun with the global war on terrorism. No longer would the American people be part of the equation in prosecuting war. To the World War II generation, freedom had costs, freedom wasn’t free. As detailed in Andrew Bacevich’s excellent book Breach of Trust, between 1940 and 1942, the corporate tax rate went from 24 to 40 percent. And in 1940, 7 percent of Americans paid federal income taxes. By 1944, it was 64 percent. 

The idea that citizenship required sacrifice was shattered forever by Vietnam. The split in our country that we still see today began during that conflict. One half of the nation’s ethos was “my country right or wrong,” while the other half was “no, not with my help.” And the truth is that they were both right and both wrong. Then, as today, our citizens are torn between allegiance to their country and their consciences. 

But in Vietnam, there was skin in the game in the form of a draft. In 2001, the military that was sent to war was an all-volunteer professional force that made up less than 1 percent of the population. And by encouraging Americans to return to the mall and Disney World, the Bush administration forever altered how the country engaged in armed conflict. The only connection the average civilian had to their nation at war was the flag and an ideal of patriotism. This is a connection that Bacevich rightly calls “heavy on symbolism and light on substance.” Nevertheless, it is a connection that has the real and deep significance of tribal association, and is thus hard to rebel against or easily cast aside. 

What that civilian experienced that day was cognitive dissonance. He genuinely wanted to support the troops, the country, the flag, but all he could offer was verbal patronage. And nothing was going to stop him from showing that support—hence his bizarre statement. In hindsight I came to grasp how dangerous this situation was and still is. Many Americans do want to sacrifice and give up something, they just haven’t been required to, nor have our elected leaders asked. And even fewer want to appear unpatriotic, especially with such a small percentage of the population bearing the burden of the wars. The Swamp has taken advantage of this aversion to breaking from the herd. The only avenue for the dissenting citizen is blocked by the American flag. 

America needs a new definition of patriotism. There is a time and a place to salute smartly and follow the flag. And now more than ever in this era of disillusionment and anger, our country needs to reinvigorate a sense of civic duty and willing sacrifice among our citizens. But equally important, the patriotic citizen should have the moral courage to follow his conscience to a position of dissent. If we love this country, and we should love this country, criticizing it isn’t an act of hatred or treason. It’s an act of love. 

Finally, what is a good definition of complete patriotism? I think Russian dissident Aleksander Solzhenitsyn said it best:

Patriotism is an integral and persistent feeling of love for one’s homeland, with a willingness to make sacrifices for her, to share her troubles, but not to serve her unquestioningly, not to support her unjust claims, rather, to frankly assess her faults, her transgressions, and to repent for these.

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.