A Children’s Crusade

August 2, 2014

Living among the dead, Flanders, Belgium, most likely during Second Battle of Ypres, April 21-May 25, 1915. (http://www.flandersfieldsmusic.com/).

Living among the dead, Flanders, Belgium, most likely during Second Battle of Ypres, April 21-May 25, 1915. (http://www.flandersfieldsmusic.com/).

World War I reached its 100th anniversary on Monday. One hundred years ago this week, European imperialism, nationalism, and Social Darwinism/scientific racism all led to what was once known as the Great War. It was a war that would leave ten million soldiers, sailors and airmen dead, another seven million civilians dead from military action, malnutrition and disease, and another 23 million wounded in action on both sides.

A British Mark V tank coming out of a trench, France, circa 1917. (Imperial War Museum via http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/10/05/).

A British Mark V tank coming out of a trench, France, circa 1917. (Imperial War Museum via http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/10/05/).

That war, a mostly European war of the great world powers, was itself based in the idea that Western culture and technologies would make this a quick and winnable war of dominance, for Germany, Britain, France and possibly Russia. The first war planes, the first tanks, the first submersibles, along with mustard and chlorine gas, nests of machine guns and trench warfare. It’s amazing how small-minded these so-called great powers were a full century ago, and so remarkable that we’ve grown beyond this thinking today!

Actually, not so fast! Our world seems to have learned little from the lessons of the First World War, repeating practices that leave the globe perpetually on the brink of chaos and potentially in peril of annihilation. We’ve seen this with the Second World War, with the Cold War and its myriad proxy wars in the Global South, with post-Cold War aggression in the Balkans, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and with US preemptive aggressions in the Muslim world. Ethnocentrism and ethnic cleansing in the name of a religion (or a lack thereof, in a couple of cases) or nationalism has been a part of modern war since World War I.

Poppies in field between Kelling and Weybourne, North Norfolk, England, UK,  June 2002. (John Beniston via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Poppies in field between Kelling and Weybourne, North Norfolk, England, UK, June 2002. (John Beniston via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Imperialism and colonialism and resistance to both in the name of freedom, or too frequently, another form of ethnocentrism and religious nationalism. Name a given nation, and you have some strain of Western imperialism and colonization, resistance and ethnocentrism and nationalism (religious, anti-religious or otherwise) running through their recent history. India, Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the former Yugoslavia, Perón’s Argentina, Pinochet’s Chile, the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, South Africa and apartheid, Israel and Zionism and settler colonialism, Japan and its military occupation of China, just to name a few. The First World War unleashed these forces this week one hundred years ago, a Pandora’s box that we will need to destroy, for it’s obviously too late to close it.

One of Sting’s songs from his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, is titled “Children’s Crusade” (1984). It’s the story of Britain’s blind march into the First World War, the wasting of a generation of youth in the name of the empire, juxtaposed with the UK’s heroin and drug epidemic of the early 1980s.

Young men and soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade

Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

Though not his best work, Sting’s “Children’s Crusade” has made me think more than once about the brutality of humanity and this inherent need to dominate other human beings, as well as the lands and resources for which vulnerable people have been cleansed and displaced. He should update it for 2014 this way:

Midnight in Gaza, Twenty Fourteen
Bombed and shelled hospitals, pawns in the game
Ashes and sackcloth, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

And all for a century-old crusade of nationalistic paranoia, imperialistic abuse, and dehumanizing ethnocentric warfare.


Patriotism, Post-Racialism and Prima Donnas

July 4, 2011

US Flag and Lower 48, July 3, 2011. Source: http://mapsof.net

It’s yet another 4th of July, number 235, and I find myself tired of how the prima donnas in this country think it their right to define for me what patriotism is and isn’t. Last I checked, carrying an M-16 rifle and wearing a uniform overseas isn’t the alpha and omega of patriotism here or anywhere, and saying that it is doesn’t make it so. By that definition, it would mean that Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony weren’t patriots, while Timothy McVeigh and John Allen Muhammad were. Those who serve in combat are obvious American patriots. But hiding behind our military in defining patriotism allows us as a nation to ignore so many things that contradict our sense of nationalism and patriotism.

Call of Duty Screen Shot, July 3, 2011. Source: http://independent.co.uk

Patriotism is about much more than guns, battles, taking flanking positions or making perfect speeches wholly incompatible with the imperfections of our society and people. As anyone in the education field knows, Americans in general know about as much history as my son knows right now, and he just finished second grade.

Our aversion to history is especially noticeable when it comes to race. We’ve declared ourselves post-racial when we haven’t even been pre-racial. Meaning that in order to get beyond race, we actually have to deal with it directly, head-on, without holding back, the ugly history of race and racism that is as American as apple pie. I’m afraid that it’ll take a national tragedy, though, for more Americans to dare be that brave, that honest, that, well, patriotic.

It’s sad, because most of us are prima donnas, or rather, imperial narcissists who talk about patriotism without understanding that being a patriot often means using one’s brain and vociferously resisting the status quo. We’re more concerned about winning Mega Millions and Powerball or the price of gas than we really are about troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan or making US foreign and economic policies more equitable abroad and at home. We somehow assume that “America is #1!” is our birthright, even as many of us haven’t the socioeconomic capacity to partake in America’s remaining riches.

Alexandra Pelosi (a documentarian and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s daughter) has been doing the media circuit talking about her latest film, Citizen U.S.A., the story of immigrants becoming naturalized

Citizen U.S.A. Poster, June 2011. Source: http://www.jfklibrary.org

American citizens and their appreciation of what they believe America is about. Her message has essentially been “shame on you” to native-born Americans for not seeing our nation the way these immigrants can and do.

But even Pelosi’s perspective is limited in its prima-donna-ness. There are millions of us who see the direction of the nation and work not to illuminate its already over-hyped greatness — a classic sign of imperialism, by the way — but to make the nation a better one, a nation that lives up to its ideals. Isn’t this another example of one’s patriotism, one that’s forward-thinking enough to work for the long-term success of a nation, rather than chest-thumping about greatness in the present?

It seems to me that we should illuminate the fact that we expend so much energy making millions of Americans who are not with the prima-donna program into unpatriotic outcasts. So much so that most of us have never had an independent thought on this topic in our entire lives. And if the 4th of July is to be about more than guns, speeches, guns and denigration, we need more people to think for and beyond themselves about patriotism, even if some of us are incapable of accepting independent thought and criticism from them.


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