The Gods of War

While militarism triumphs, we're all busy taking the pledge

The Gods of War
Illustration By Doug Potter

There are few public spectacles more entertaining than the tribe of politicians in a chorus of full-throated sanctimony. We enjoyed a bracing example last month when the beleaguered 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared the most recent revision of the Pledge of Allegiance -- the 1954 addition of the phrase "under God" -- unconstitutional. There is nothing that a politician enjoys more, or that risks less, than a stentorian declaration of patriotism.

Accordingly, in D.C. and in Texas, down rained the Storm of High Dudgeon.

U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Dallas, called the decision "one of the most asinine things I ever heard." West Virginia Democrat Sen. Robert Byrd (ancient enough to have voted for the pledge change in 1954) said, "I hope the Senate will waste no time in throwing this back in the face of this stupid judge." Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called the ruling "just nuts," a monosyllabic echo of the president's "ridiculous." (Associated Press Headline of the Week: "President attends church, says pledge, then goes fishing.")

State politicians were equally predictable. "A few days ago, a federal court in California tried to strike down the Pledge of Allegiance," Gov. Perry told a group of veterans. "But try as they might, they cannot strike down the truth. We are one nation, under God, indivisible." Perry's gubernatorial opponent, Tony Sanchez, told yet another group of veterans, "We are now and will always be one nation under God." Veteran ovations all around.

The downballot candidates also genuflected, but the Wretched Excess Award goes to Democratic Senate candidate Ron Kirk: "With Texas and our nation preparing to celebrate Independence Day, declaring the pledge of allegiance to 'Old Glory' unconstitutional is absolute nonsense. We have troops fighting the war on terrorism. Our citizens are working to support themselves, to support their families and to provide for their children. Our communities are coming together, striving to improve their economies. And the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is declaring our pledge of allegiance unconstitutional? Unbelievable and outrageous..." There was more, but I'm sure y'all are far too busy improving your economies to endure Kirk's entire oration.

From Equality to Abnegation

As reported by Lee Nichols last week in "Naked City," the original pledge was written in 1892 by a New England Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy. (Alfred T. Goodwin, the Republican federal judge who wrote the 9th Circuit decision, was the son of a Baptist minister, which goes to show that everybody is redeemable.) Bellamy had been run out of his Boston pulpit by parishioners who objected to his socialist sermons, but hired on to The Youth's Companion, a family magazine that became the first venue for the pledge. Bellamy's version featured neither a god nor any particular country -- the pledge was intended to be shared by all republics. Indeed, Bellamy would have added "equality" to "liberty and justice" -- but, in the words of historian John Baer, he "knew that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans." The more things change ...

For Bellamy, a dyed-in-blue-wool Unionist, the important word was "indivisible" -- Southern patriots now loudly declaring their allegiance would certainly be shocked at that apostasy. In the Twenties, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution commandeered the pledge into a nationalist oath to the U.S. And in 1954, under the influence of the Knights of Columbus, a McCarthyite Congress, and a hidebound D.C. Presbyterian minister, God was crowbarred into the pledge. "Indeed, apart from the mention of the phrase, 'the United States of America,'" preached Rev. George M. Docherty to President Eisenhower, "this could be a pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity."

Poor Francis Bellamy -- his idealistic gesture of internationalism, humanism, and free republicanism was inexorably corrupted into its opposite, as grimly confirmed in 1987 by that noted theologian, George Bush the First: "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."

The War Party

It's appropriate that the current orgy of sanctified nationalism should take place during "wartime," not only the borderless and endless war against "terrorism" but the ongoing and soon to be expanded hot war against Iraq. Last week The New York Times reported that the Bush administration is well along in detailed plans to launch a major assault against "Saddam Hussein," perhaps as early as this fall -- a bloody scenario in which the people of Iraq, still suffering under many years of brutal economic sanctions, are considered as little more than an inconvenience.

It is a presumption of these plans -- as in Bush declarations about Palestine -- that the U.S. has the absolute right and authority to determine the governments of other nations. The main hindrance to a full-scale war is the time it will take to strong-arm our "allies" -- deferential tyrannies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar -- into providing base support. Niceties like international law or even international consequences are of little moment to the Empire, in full pursuit of yet another doctrine of Bush's Poppy: "What we say, goes."

As for the loyal opposition? The Democrats are racing to fall in line and keep their mouths shut: "Politically, I don't think we want to be having this debate [on Iraq] right now," a Democratic strategist told Roll Call. "We want to be talking about prescription drugs."

And the independent press? My unscientific database search of one week's coverage of U.S. news sources turned up the following interesting statistics: Total number of stories referencing "war" and "Iraq": 57. Total number of stories referencing the "pledge of allegiance": 549. Outside of a few letters to the editor, not one of the 57 news stories and editorials questioned the morality of a war against Iraq; the only questions concerned its feasibility and/or potential benefits for the U.S.

Your allegiance is expected.

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9th Circuit Court of Appeals, pledge of allegiance, under God, Dick Armey, Robert Byrd, Tom Daschle, Rick Perry, Tony Sanchez, Ron Kirk, Francis Bellamy, Alfred T. Goodwin, American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, Knights of Columbus, George M. Docherty, E

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