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What is Patriotism and why is it a Virtue?

Both Remarque’s Baumer and Kovic were young men who enlisted to fight in a war, based on their trust of adults in their countries. Both came to believe the adults had lied and both came to recognize the difference between the concept of war and its reality, the difference between war at a distance and war up close and personal, where, day after day, you see the blood and guts pouring out of the bodies of men who were whole the day before, men who die before your eyes, where you not only know in your head that death is real but know it in every cell of your body.

Both came to feel a division between older men with power who declared wars that younger men without power fought, only to wind up in the filthy under- or poorly staffed hospitals that those with power provided to those they had pretended to respect. These characteristics are enough to elicit the accusation of lacking patriotism, or, as in the eloquent response to Kovic after he criticized the Vietnam War at the Republican convention prior to Nixon’s second term, “you lousy commie sonofabitch! ” (182).

When Kovic first heard of the anti-war protestors, he shared the anger of others in his outfit: “people protesting against us when we were putting our lives on the line for our country” (134). In the end, however, he shared the view Baumer held soon after enlisting in World War I (W. W. I), when he and others in his outfit recognized they had been deceived: “We loved out country as much as they” (13). Regarding patriotism, Remarque let Baumer reach a more complex and risky position than that of Kovic and most of those who criticize the wars their countries enter.

An American child of the 1950s comes of age It is appropriate that Kovic was “born on the fourth of July” because he represented the ideal American child of the 1950s. He “loved God more than anything else in the world back then and I prayed . . . to be a good boy and a good American” (50), believed the Communists “were infiltrating our schools, trying to take over our classes and control our minds” (60), “loved baseball” (47), was “a natural athlete” (68), and learned about war by watching movies starring Audie Murphey and John Wayne (54).

The summer of 1964, after he graduated from high school, he proudly enlisted in the United States Marines (74-75). There he learned that war was not the way it was in the movies, anguished over having accidentally shot another American soldier and was part of an outfit that thought they were shooting at Communist soldiers only to be devastated to find an “old man.. . . with his head blown off” and children covered with blood (206). On the other hand, before his injury, he welcomed the chance to finally shoot at “the real enemy” (219).

It was after experiencing the appalling conditions, indifferent staff, and humiliations at a Veteran’s hospital, after the devastation of becoming permanently paralyzed from the chest down, being treated by officials as an object to be displayed at a parade, and finally anguishing over Nixon sending the National Guard to fire at students at a war demonstration at Kent State, where four were shot, that he realized the “real enemy” was his own government and dedicated himself to help in showing the American people, people he thought had been deceived just as he was, that the war was “a crime against humanity” (180).

He and other protestors considered themselves the real patriots who loved and devoted themselves not to America, but to the American people. With no disrespect to Kovic, who crawled back from raw pain to become the kind of American who still believed wars could be prevented by educating people, he and most people never begin to ask the hard questions Remarque’s characters asked. Why should people love their countries? Baumer was a W. W.

I hero who risked his life several times on behalf of an injured friend from his outfit, but also came to view members of “enemy” countries as human young men, who also were suffering after being deceived by those with power. At first, when Baumer’s camp is next to imprisoned Russian soldiers, in far worse condition then than the German soldiers, he wants to feel sympathy but instead, because he doesn’t know the soldiers, he feels when he sees them “only . . . the awful melancholy of life and the pitilessness of men” (193).

But he does manage to get know some who speak some German, such as the musician who plays his violin, as “he sways the instrument to the rhythm and smiles” at Baumer who is playing the piano (195). Perhaps the most haunting event in the book is when Baumer loses his way and hides in what probably is an “enemy” shell-whole to avoid being shot. In advance, he decides that if another soldier gets into the whole to shoot him, not having his gun, he’d use his dagger to kill the intruder.

After stabbing a French soldier, he took no comfort from the soldier’s nationality, but instead remained tormented as his victim gurgled and very slowly died. “Comrade,” he says, after the man dies, “I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it . . . Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and we have the same fear of death and the same dying and the same agony” (223).

Earlier, he had not been prepared to accept the logical answer to his friend’s question: “we are here to protect our fatherland. And the French are over there to protect their fatherland. Now who’s in the right? ” (203). Indeed, another friend went even further after the first one proposed that wars began when one country offended another: “A country? I don’t follow. A mountain in Germany cannot offend a mountain in France” (204).

In the end, Baumer seems to have accepted the supposedly unpatriotic belief that that there are bonds between generations, not countries: “I see how people’s are set against one another, and unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one and other . . . And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things” (263). Yet, one wonders why Remarque stopped his characters from asking other questions. Did they or Kovic really not understand that in all wars there are some young soldiers who choose to torture civilians (as at My Lei, during the Vietnam War)?

Do any of them really fail to understand that whatever the personal motivations of the powerful (whether greedy or virtuous), they know wars are best fought when they are supported by the public, and their lies are based on what will engage the support of the public. Can anyone believe that regardless of the actual motives of Lincoln and Roosevelt, the public would have supported a war to end slavery or to rescue Jewish Holocaust victims? Perhaps we need to explore more difficult explanations of war, based on individual character, rather than on meaningless divisions.

Background All of the countries involved in W. W. I were unprepared for its length and by “the slaughter of millions of men in the trenches” (Spielvogel 458). Because of the need for heavy production of wartime materials and large numbers of replacements for casualties of the war, governments needed to expand their control over citizens, so that earlier public enthusiasm turned into lower and lower public morale. Against this background, Remarque’s novel was not the only great anti-war novel resulting from this war.

Indeed, a new edition of a World War I novel written by the American, Dalton Trumbo, with an introduction by Kovic, was an account of the most extreme disability of the sort Kovic experienced – the loss not only of the use of his body, but the use of everything but his mind, a torso without eyes, nose, mouth, ears, arms, or legs. That so much devastation was suffered by so many people for the purpose of gaining or preserving territory brings to mind the character in Remarque (described above) who questioned the very concept of “country.

” The length of and number of casualties in the Vietnam War also came as a surprise. In the 50s and even into the early part of the 60s, Americans had been conditioned to accept justification of war when the purpose was to stop the spread of the Communist “menace. ” But there came a time when the placid generation of the 50s had had enough. More and more people of Kovic’s age and then those who were older had had enough. “The mounting destruction and increasing brutality of the war, brought into American homes on television . . .

turned American public opinion against U. S. participation” (513). Summary Both Kovic and Baumer were in brutal and unpopular wars. Both enlisted because of a patriotism instilled in them by those in power, but came to learn they had been deceived. They and others who served in the same wars, as well as many who did not serve, adopted views that were considered unpatriotic. The theme of this essay was that Kovic and others like him considered themselves patriotic because it was the American government, not the American people, they opposed.

Though written decades earlier, Remarque depicted Baumer as eventually having the more radical view, that one’s bonds and loyalties were not with individual countries but with younger generations who fought the wars of all countries.

Works Cited

Kovic, Ron. Born on the Fourth of July. 1976. New York: Pocket Books. Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. 1929/1982. Trans. A. W. Wheen. New York: Ballantine. Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization. Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny got his Gun. 1939/1994. New York: Carol Publishing Group.

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