The true essence of patriotism

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Ray Hanania’s Column

Patriotism should never be based on emotion, although it often always is.

But the fact is that patriotism often prevents the public from learning the truth about events, especially with respect to such great tragedies as war and conflict.

It is more likely true than not, that Osama Bin Laden was involved, some how, in the terrorist attacks of September 11. But the issue of whether or not he ordered the strikes or directed the strikes is something we may never know clearly, at least for several decades.

And, when it is finally known, it will be irrelevant, not because of justice and truth, but because of the reality of the passing of time and the escalation of events.

Questioning President Bush and American policy is not easy, even with that mild challenge of the “party line.” But the real American will question his or her government, and the real American will not accept in a wave of emotional hysteria, the assertions of any government, including their own.

In 1964, the United States was trying to find a “legal” way to engage the North Vietnamese in a full-scale military assault.

At that time, the threat was “communism,” not terrorism. The North Vietnamese had defeated the French, and were planning a takeover of the entire peninsula. The French retreat had opened up the likelihood that the South Vietnamese regime would fall, unless the United States could intervene.

They needed an attack that we might today considered an act of terrorism, against an American target. Since the North Vietnamese would not attack the United States and provide a justification for war, President Lyndon Baines Johnson simply made an attack up.

On August 5, 1964 on national TV, President Johnson claimed that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had launched an “unprovoked attack” against the U.S. destroyer, the USS Maddox. The USS Maddox, Johnson said, was on “routine patrol” in the Tonkin Gulf when it was attacked on Aug. 2.

Johnson said that two days later, North Vietnamese PT boats followed up the attack on the USS Maddox with a “deliberate attack” on a pair of U.S. ships. Days later, the Congress approved the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” and the United States unleashed one of the most massive air assaults in history against the North Vietnamese.

A wave of patriotism swept through the United States as Americans rallied behind their president and denounced this “cowardly act of aggression” by the North Vietnamese. Americans went out and bought American flags, displaying them on their homes and on their cars, just as they are today. The North Vietnamese deserved to be attacked.

The problem, of course, was that Johnson had made the entire story up. Yes, the Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese, but it was USS Maddox that provoked the fight. The claim that the North Vietnamese had attacked two more American ships days later was an outright lie. It never happened.

It was difficult for anyone to challenge the President or to speak out against our military escalation into Vietnam.

It was unpatriotic. How could anyone disbelieve a president? How could anyone disbelieve the media reports? Vilified by the President and the media and all of its spin doctors, how could anyone not believe that the North Vietnamese had committed such heinous, unprovoked attacks against innocent American military vessels?

The truth took many years to come out, but not before more than 68,000 American lives had been lost in a war that should never have taken place. Johnson cautioned that Americans should prepare for a long drawn out battle, but that the better trained and better equipped American military would eventually rout the backwards, ragtag peasant, Communist forces.

History has a way of smoothing out the wrinkles, blurring the truth and casting many otherwise patriotic Americans as “traitors” and “cowards” and “turncoats.”

President Johnson may have harbored fears that the lie would be found out, but he knew that once the conflict started, the lie would become less and less relevant as the conflict escalated and the North Vietnamese responded with force to defend themselves.

It all sounds all too familiar. Not just in Afghanistan, but in Israel, too.

Democracy is not about the defense of government, but about the intrinsic ability to challenge government. It’s about the ability to disbelieve in the face of overwhelming opposition.

The real patriots are those who force the government to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what they claim is true, is in fact true.

Because the actions we take today have ramifications we may never see until many years later when short little wars drag on long into the future.

(Ray Hanania is a Palestinian American writer based in Chicago and a regular contributor to MMN. His columns are archived on the web at www.hanania.com)

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