On a recent trip to the Mono Lake region of the eastern Sierra, we had dinner at the Double Eagle Restaurant in Lee Vining, where we observed a curious sight on a wall near the entrance. It was an American flag, folded tightly into a triangle and mounted and framed, along with the following text, which is superimposed over a series of romantic images, including helicopters, battle scenes, citations and Marine unit insignia:
“So that all shall know, this flag was flown in the face of the enemy, illuminated in the dark by the light of justice, over the compound of our nation’s leading task force in the Global War on Terrorism, on November twenty-sixth, 2008, and bears witness to the destruction of terrorist forces threatening the freedom of the United States of America and the world.
IN HONOR OF THE DOUBLE EAGLE SPA & RESORT
Signed, __________, Commander of ____ battalion, etc.”
We ate at three restaurants in Lee Vining. I saw another folded flag on the wall of the second restaurant. The third had a series of flags flying around its outdoor seating area. But this sight was the most intriguing.
I felt angry at having my vacation disturbed by this reminder of almost twelve years of unnecessary carnage, and then sad at all the lives lost, both in those years and in the years to come. But then I felt drawn to the text itself, and marveled at the perspective it conveyed to its intended audience. Assuming that similar plaques are currently on display in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of public places across the country, I had to unpack it in terms of American myth.
“This flag was flown in the face of the enemy…” Perhaps the writer (very likely a PR man hired for the occasion) simply meant to imply that this is an actual battle flag, which in the world of militant nationalism – I call it the addiction of nationalism – has the emotional resonance of a holy relic. If American lives had been placed in danger, then this must have been a just cause.
Or perhaps flying a flag in the enemy’s face is more of a smug, naughty gesture – In yo face, suckah! Watch’a gonna do? – the taunting gesture of an adolescent, or an adolescent culture. You want a piece of me?
At another level, such passive aggressive taunts (Strike me first. See if I care.) are really unconscious pleas for initiation. Translated into ritual terms, they come out like this: Kill the boy in me so that I might become a man.
Then there’s the question of where that flag was flown, on Afghan national territory, eight thousand miles from America. This is a central image in American myth. Just as the U.S. Army 45 years ago referred to the unsecured Vietnamese countryside as “Indian territory,” the holders of this flag were defiantly asserting the right of America (or John Wayne’s cavalry, if you prefer) to establish itself among the “hostiles.”
These images have retained their deep emotional resonance for older (white) Americans, and it seems that it is imperative that younger people (such as the young families in the restaurant) should also digest them. Despite the vast majority of incidents in which those cavalry troops and this Marine Force were guilty of massacring innocent people, our war narratives have consistently portrayed our soldiers as being idealistic, innocent and never fighting unless provoked. As Franklin D. Roosevelt told his Naval commanders in early December, 1941: “The United States desires that Japan should commit the first overt act.” Yes, that was a direct quote.
“This flag:” consider how an Afghan citizen might react to the idea of someone else’s flag being flown on his or her land. Or put the whole thing into an urban American context: what could be more provocative than a group of thugs displaying their gang colors on your block? Aren’t they saying try and knock this chip off my shoulder?
“Illuminated by the light of justice” is tacky but effective metaphor. That light comes from the Judeo-Christian God of war, the one who has sanctioned all the extremes of violence perpetrated by Western Man for three thousand years. This God would have us resort to violence, to kill violent perpetrators (and would shame us if we didn’t) because, we are always told, killing is wrong. Why do Americans insist on the death penalty when it has no deterrent value? To punish people, not to prevent others from acting violently; certainly not to rehabilitate them.
This God’s violence is in the name of justice. So yet another generation of Americans will feel justified in destroying Third World people who would determine their own destinies. Or as they said in Viet Nam: We had to destroy the village in order to save it. In other words, we have the right god and they don’t.
“Our nation’s leading task force” – Not simply any U.S. Marine force, but the very best of them. One might well wonder who sets the standards and who judges such things, but no matter. The assumption of “We’re number one” is the critical thing here, even if it implies that another Marine force is number two.
“The Global War on Terrorism:” In case anyone needed to be reminded, you are either with us or you are against us, wherever you are on the planet. Politically, psychologically and mythologically, these words portray a black-and-white world (or a white-on-black world) that cannot allow for any nuance. Since nuance invites inward speculation, it is threatening. What does it threaten? Our identity.
The specific date – November twenty-sixth, 2008 – locks the event (destruction of terrorist forces) into all readers’ memories and invites them to ponder just what they were doing on the same date while these Marines – these American boys – were defending our freedom and that of the whole world.
Perhaps the owner of the Double Eagle has lost a son to the war. With all due respect, is this the way to memorialize his life – or his sacrifice? Let me say this as simply as I can. To be confronted with the potential truth that your boy died or was maimed for nothing – for Wall Street and Big Oil – that you sent them with your patriotic blessing, that you proudly offered one of your children to be sacrificed – would be more than most people could bear. Therefore, when our government and media gatekeepers offer us the opportunity to collude with their crimes by re-inventing memory – He died defending freedom – who wouldn’t take the bait?
In a demythologized world we construct meaning and identity by placing ourselves and the memories of our lost loved ones within the protective coating of national myth, or nationalism. In this sense, nationalism is precisely the same in its addictive qualities as alcoholism or any other substance addiction. It serves to insulate us from the pain of acknowledging our suffering and the suffering we inflict on others. The God of justice required this sacrifice, and rather than regretting it, we offered it willingly.
But wait, as the late-night commercials shout, there’s more! The myth of a reluctantly violent America that comes to the aid of the oppressed and defends freedom with the blood of its young men has always been inextricably entangled with a whole series of commercial myths, from rugged individualism to the Protestant ethic to sacrosanct corporate capitalism. Something is always for sale in America, and our PR flack couldn’t resist a final plug. Apparently, this flag itself – perhaps the memory of the very battle it flew over – is here on this wall “IN HONOR OF THE DOUBLE EAGLE SPA & RESORT.” Was the whole battle fought for that reason? Who was selling and who was buying?
But the likelihood (based on this small sample of one resort area among hundreds) that such “authentic” plaques appear in huge numbers all across the country actually is a positive sign. If our media gatekeepers must repeatedly use such emotionally manipulative texts to remind us of these mythic narratives, then perhaps the Myth of American Innocence, like the walls of ancient Thebes, really is collapsing. And when it does come down, will we be there to offer a new story?