“Patriot Oratory”: A Century of Anti-Nationalist Literature in America

Throughout the twentieth century, the subject of war would remain a largely unignorable one which would be addressed by a multitude of American writers.

Between 1904 and 1905, for instance, Mark Twain penned his daring short story “The War Prayer,” a forthright attack on those who would attempt to rally public support for an unjust war. Two major world wars would occur over the next 30 years. Alongside these conflicts, there was also a growing imperialist influence around the globe on the part of the United States. Whatever their political stripes, a number of groups including Marxists, Old Right conservatives, and various religious sects would declare their staunch opposition to these sorts of policies and the philosophies which underpinned them. Later on, some of E.E. Cummings’ writings would be even more upfront and provocative than Twain’s. His poems “next to of course god america i” and “I Sing of Olaf Glad and Big” are striking in their profoundly anti-jingoist content. Near the turn of the century as well, Don DeLillo’s “Videotape” would take a more subtle approach in dealing with the issue of militarism. Rather than focusing on warfare itself, his story reveals a culture that is continually drawn to things that are violent; the carrying out of foreign wars, of course, is no exception. All three authors are notable for their direct or implied criticisms of American nationalism, whether such nationalism is supported by the invoking of God and religious belief, by appealing to a desire to be patriotic, or by playing on the public’s appetite for violence.

In his short story “The War Prayer,” Mark Twain describes a number of people who are led by their churches and pastors, many of whom openly “preached devotion to flag and country” (Twain 107) in support of a war of imperialism. In the so-called “long” prayer, the minister of one particular church presumes that their country’s cause in war is directly supported by Almighty God, who will most surely “bless them” and “shield them in the day of battle” (108). Twain notes how the preacher speaks these words “in fervent appeal,” asking of the “Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag” that He would ensure their absolute victory. His message, however, is not without some detractors. The actual righteousness of such a battle is questioned by several individuals, who Twain describes as “the half dozen rash spirits” who “straightway got such a stern and angry warning” that they were forced to flee for their lives. Indeed, by mentioning that “the church was filled” (107), Twain implies even further that there is an enormous amount of support from the community toward the idea of engaging in war. When an “aged stranger” enters the church, he boldly claims to be carrying a word of his own “from Almighty God” (108), one which ends up standing in total opposition to the teachings and prayers of the ministers. Almost predictably, they choose not to heed his words of caution. They all consider him “a lunatic” and hold to the opinion that “there was no sense in what he said” (109).

There is little question at all as to what Twain’s personal views were on the matter of war. His opinions about it were most certainly an influence on the story. Between 1901 and 1910, in fact, he was vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League, a group which staunchly opposed the country’s annexation of the Philippines (238). The stranger’s warnings in “The War Prayer” of battles “lay[ing] waste their humble homes” and leaving “their little children to wander … in rags and hunger and thirst” (109) are certainly ways of describing the inevitable results of not only military conflicts in general, but imperial occupation in particular. Twain was not at all shy about expressing his own disgust with such policies. Speaking at a dinner in November of 1900, he remarked that “[a] righteous war is so rare that it is almost unknown in history” (qtd. in Petersen 130).

Later on, during the American modernist period, E.E. Cummings would turn his focus toward criticizing jingoism and the blind allegiance to a national flag that goes along with it. In 1925, Cummings’ poem “The Patriot” would be published in Vanity Fair before he renamed it “next to of course god america i” by the following year (Cummings 721 footnote 1). His poem is drenched with sarcasm, even including a number of fragmented phrases from the American patriotic song “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (721). Cummings mentions the country later on in a mocking manner, writing in lines seven and eight of how “thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gory / by jingo by gee by gosh by gum” (722). In saying this, he uses the precise word of “jingo,” which is undoubtedly a reference to the type of fanatical patriotism that manifests itself as jingoism. “[W]hat could be more beautiful,” Cummings suggests, “than these heroic happy dead” (l. 9-10). Cummings’ focus here is on the soldiers themselves, who many Americans of the time might have considered to be men who voluntarily sacrificed their lives for the good of the country and the preservation of its liberties. Interestingly, his use of this phrase has a direct parallel with Twain’s mention in his own story of “bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored” (Twain 107). This is essentially the same cliché that remains even today, where all overseas conflicts are painted with a broad brush as supposed wars in defense of American freedom, even while the grounds on which each of them is fought may differ dramatically from one to another.

In “I Sing of Olaf Glad and Big,” Cummings focuses on a character named Olaf who is known to have “recoiled at war” and maintained a stance of objection toward it out of conscience (Cummings 723). It appears that Olaf is in an actual military environment, considering the mention of a “colonel” and “westpointer” in lines four and five, as well as “noncoms” – a word for noncommissioned military officers (723 footnote 2) – in line eight. Another mention of “allegiance per blunt instruments” (l. 14) is likely referring to rifle bayonets, especially when it is considered alongside line 30. At this point, Cummings describes the substance of Olaf’s views, who expresses in a clear rejection of militarism and nationalistic glorification that “I will not kiss your fucking flag” (l. 19). The response of those officers around him is somewhat comparable to that in Twain’s story; any individuals who resist the military’s cause are shunned and expelled. In Olaf’s case, they are “egged … on his rectum” (724), which is likely a way of describing their beating of his posterior or his body in general with weapons. Cummings writes that they “applied bayonets roasted hot with heat” (l. 30), causing Olaf to fall to the ground on bloodied-up knees and say to them that “there is some shit I will not eat” (l. 31-32). A president is mentioned as being made aware of this and putting Olaf, a treasonous and cowardly “yellowsonabitch,” into prison (l. 34-37). The tendency to brand those who will not bend the knee to a country’s policies as being spineless traitors, of course, is one of the hallmarks of jingoism. Truly, Cummings was very much channeling the spirit of Mark Twain, who writes in his Notebook that “we have thrown away the most valuable asset we have — the individual right to oppose both flag and country when he (just he by himself) believes them to be in the wrong” (qtd. in Petersen 83-84).

By the late twentieth century, technology was changing rapidly enough so as to alter various methods of warfare along with it. Some authors, like Don DeLillo, would take a more subtle approach in addressing these issues. The uniqueness of DeLillo’s story “Videotape” is that it focuses on the aspect of a fixation on violence within society. In the story, a particular murder which was captured on video is described to be shown continuously on television “a thousand times a day … because it exists, because they have to show it…” (DeLillo 1426). In particular, DeLillo emphasizes a constant thirst on the public’s part for violence. His story’s connection with something like nationalism is more subtle than the aforementioned works of Twain and Cummings, but its relation is still evident. Unlike their works, however, DeLillo also zeroes in on the individual rather than a group of people within society. He speaks to everyman and his wife, Janet, who he badly wants to show the video to “because it is real this time, not fancy movie violence” (1425). The author makes mention of how the victim in the tape might be perceived by some viewers as “a chump, a dope” or someone who might have “had it coming, in a way, like an innocent fool in a silent movie” (1426). When carried over into the realm of war, this is reminiscent of the modern concept of so-called collateral damage, innocent civilians who are killed during a conflict (Merriam-Webster). In the midst of a nationalistic fervor for militarism, there is little room for sympathy over these kinds of people. For a rabid nationalist, such losses might be unfortunate, but they are still viewed as necessary.

Since the advent of YouTube and other video websites, internet users have seen an influx of hundreds-of-thousands of popular hosted clips which depict true-life violence and combat. One of these is titled “US Military,” a clip that offers no time context by way of a description, but which clearly shows a group of foreigners being targeted and killed by American military vehicles. Below the video frame, one viewer comments that the American soldiers are “fighting against a bunch of peasants from the dark ages using 21st century weapons” and that “these towel monkeys don’t stand a chance.” Another remarks that “They live in a giant litter-box and they all deserve what these guys got” (Stewart). To purely nationalistic and jingoist viewers such as these, the American military is in the right simply because it is considered as being the strongest force in the situation, or perhaps the morally superior one. The victim is seen as deserving precisely because he is opposing that force. It is not merely jingoist viewers, however, who are necessarily drawn to watching a video like this. With more than one million views, the video may very well continue to be watched by a great number of individuals who want to see something astonishing or unanticipated. DeLillo describes the videotape of his story in a similar way, writing that “[s]eeing someone at the moment he dies, dying unexpectedly … is reason alone to stay fixed to the screen” (1426). One does not need to necessarily be brutal or sadistic in his or her private life to find himself or herself glued to a violent video. For some, it is even less so the case with a military-oriented clip. Militaries are entities that are abstractions in the minds of many. Like those within a typical internet video, the individuals in “Videotape” are “famous in the modern manner of people whose names are strategically withheld” and “without names or faces” (1426). While the video might be showing actual events, they are still abstractions that exist in another time and in a faraway land.

In reality, it may well be the case that the average American today is not disturbed any longer by the idea of foreign armies and citizens being torn “to bloody shreds with our shells” or by “the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain” (Twain 108-09). The kind of society which has become increasingly desensitized to violence is hardly in a position to feel remorse over it being committed within a context thousands of miles away across a vast ocean. This is perhaps the primary reason for an evolution over the last century in how writers have chosen to address an issue like nationalism. Twain could appeal to his readers on moral grounds; Cummings could even point out the foolishness of blind allegiance to a country. DeLillo, however, would be forced to grapple with the postmodern mind. Because of its presuppositions, that mind is not always so prepared to accept the moral absolutism which claims that imperialist war is always unjust and always senseless.

 

Works Cited

“Collateral damage.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2013. Web. 16 Apr 2013.

Cummings, E.E. “next to of course god america i.” Trans. Array The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume Two: 1865 to Present. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. 1st ed. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 721-22. Print.

___. “I Song of Olaf Glad and Big.” Trans. Array The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume Two: 1865 to Present. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. 1st ed. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 723-24. Print.

DeLillo, Don. “Videotape.” Trans. Array The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume Two: 1865 to Present. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. 1st ed. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 1423-26. Print.

Fishkin, Shelley F. A Historical Guide to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Petersen, Svend. Mark Twain and the Government. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1960. Print.

Stewart, Bryson. “US Military.” Online video clip. YouTube.com. YouTube, 11 Jan 2010. Web. 17 Apr 2013.

Twain, Mark. “The War Prayer.” Trans. Array The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Volume Two: 1865 to Present. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. 1st ed. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 107-09. Print.

 

One thought on ““Patriot Oratory”: A Century of Anti-Nationalist Literature in America

  1. I have been struggling lately with the idea of nationalism within the context of a Christian Church. This has given me much to think on.

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