With Independence Day soon upon us, I feel the need today to strike a patriotic note. Despite what cynics may suppose, this is not because patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English wit, essayist and lexicographer, insisted (in my experience, it is the first refuge).
I also feel obliged to point out that this burst of patriotism is not spurred by any outbreak of flag-burners doing their stupid work. In Pittsburgh lately, it has been so soggy that you couldn’t light a flag with a blowtorch if anyone were so recklessly inclined, which they are not.
Of course, the complete and widespread absence of flag-burning doesn’t stop members of Congress from trying to pass an amendment to the Constitution to deal with something hardly anyone has personally witnessed.
It all goes to show that if Johnson were making his famous dictionary today, he surely would have this definition of a congressman: “A lawmaker who ignores important issues so that he might profit by the unimportant.”
But as a journalist — likely definition: “A writer who is accused of bias by people who are themselves hopelessly biased” — I feel compelled to say something on behalf of those of us patriotic folks who support the troops but do not support the war in Iraq. As polls suggest, there are many of us now in these disunited United States.
The idea that a patriotic American can simultaneously support the troops and oppose the war drives people on the right nuts. “How does that work?” they ask incredulously.
I will tell them in a minute, but first let me say that the simple pleasure of being irritating is surely reason and incentive enough for waverers on this point to adopt the sane position of pro-troops, antiwar.
There is an important distinction to be observed here, and unfortunately Americans are notoriously hopeless at making distinctions.
Why, look at poor Rush Limbaugh, the self-styled friend of patriots. He arrives back from vacation at Palm Beach International Airport in a private plane — it is a tough life, being a blowhard — and is detained because he has a male enhancement product, and the prescription is not in order.
What harassment! The authorities should have understood that men with hugely inflated egos need an enhancement product because certain parts of their body naturally suffer by comparison. But I say, give Rush a break! Make a distinction between Viagra, surely a boon to mankind (you may get an argument from womankind), and other sorts of drugs that are bad.
In the same way, the troops are good people (I know, I was a soldier once myself), but the war in Iraq is bad. Worse, it is stupid, serving as an incubator of terrorism undertaken in the name of defeating terrorism.
The great irony here is that, stripped of all the ridiculous rhetoric, the only argument currently going on is whether we are going to leave Iraq sooner or later — not whether we are going to leave.
If we decide to leave sooner, the Iraqis will have a stronger incentive to get their act together sooner and better their chances later. Or as Johnson wisely said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Perhaps the reason why so many conservatives can’t grasp that it is possible to support the troops and dislike the war is they were all home-schooled and were too busy practicing for those infernal spelling bees and didn’t get around to reading the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
For Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” says it all — it is at once a soaring anthem to martial courage and a description of the waste and sadness of war. Someone had blundered, the poet said, but theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why.
Yes, we support the troops — when can their glory fade? — but we also know that someone has blundered, in fact, a whole party of someones. Happy Independence Day, anyway. Our unburned flags will be flying.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)