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Observation #6: Patriotism

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Samuel Johnson didn’t have it quite right when he said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

It seems to me that it is mostly the first refuge of a scoundrel.

Col. Calvin R. Ellis addressed our ROTC class at Wheaton College in 1969 knowing that almost all  (97% was the betting chances at that time)  of us future (Class of 1970) second lieutenants would be ordered to Vietnam, where he had already done two tours.    He told us flat out, “You young men will be asked to participate in the worst foreign policy mistake made by the United States in this century.”    The thing about something you might not actually have brought to the surface in your brain but might have been percolating, is that, once stated, you are certain it is the truth,  and that truth sticks with you for the rest of your lives.

After that, I looked at people wearing flags on their lapels differently.   What had been a subconscious uneasiness over the display became more solidly distasteful.    First, it is almost completely a male affectation.  There were a few females.   If you Google “Phyllis Schlafly” and “Mike Royko” you should find some interesting columns.   Schlafly led the fight in Illinois to stop the Equal Rights Amendment from being adopted.   So, women can be scoundrels as well but it’s mostly a male genetic defect.

In the 1970’s after Vietnam, I taught at a high school in the Southwest Suburbs.   I had a relatively un-scarring tour of Vietnam.  I was in charge of two detachments of  photographers and lab-techs at Da Nang and Phu Bai.   The photographic unit had, just before I arrived,  lost five photographers in one fell swoop when their helicopter, just minutes from landing, was shot down by an enemy rocket.    My toughest personal assignment was photographing the suicide of a young specialist who had fired an M-16 through his mouth into his brain.  He was on CQ (company quarters — overnight front desk duty) sitting at his unit’s front desk in the middle of the night, playing  a game of solitaire, listening to Sergeant Art or one of the other disc jockeys on Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN)  and suddenly decided (without notifying his fellow soldier who would be his middle-of-the-night relief eventually, but who was at that point sleeping about seven feet away on the floor) that this seemed like a good idea.   You get over the horror by looking at the scene through your lens and reducing everything to two dimensions and framing off as much as you can handle at that instant.   You owe this guy and CID the most and best information you can give them.    You think about the unlucky direct commanding officer who has to write the letter to his folks back home to explain what is incomprehensible.  And you don’t sleep for two or three nights as the images play back.

Back to the high school, we had many good teachers but the man who handled internal suspension was special.   I learned from his close friends, that he came back from Vietnam with a Silver Star with two “V”s for Valor.   He didn’t speak about any part of Vietnam, much less what he had done.   If anyone had wanted to pin an American Flag on his lapel, well, he was about 6’7” and looked like a long-haired version of Lurch from the Addams Family.  Our principal often said that next to our dean of students, Bill Kappmeyer, this guy helped hold the roof on this newly-opened school in a chaotic community.