Why I Hate the Star-Spangled Banner: How It Perpetuates Our Glorification of War

Do Americans really like to kill people? Are we really that savage, that violent, that horrific a society that we want to kill millions of people as we actually have in the many wars that we have fought since World War II?

I don’t think so, though it seems with the amping up of police violence and the increasing rant of the NRA we are headed in a disturbing direction.

Junger is probably right about the machismo that exists in human societies. But does it have to be that way? Can we rewire our brains, can we evolve into a higher form of human being for whom war is unnecessary?

I cringe when I hear the “Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s not just that the notes go everywhere and that the melody is uneven. It’s the words, their connotation — the rockets red glare and the bombs bursting in air. A beautiful image, you might say, but they have come to represent something else. A militant, aggressive nation bent on ruling the world, and it’s those words and images that reinforce the violent streak running through our history.

The military, the soldier, the American sniper, the hero defending our country against enemies at home and abroad has become a staple of our culture. From Audie Murphy to John Wayne to Rambo, and now to Chris Kyle, we stand in line to watch our heroes act out the ritual of defending the homeland. It happens every Memorial Day and 4th of July, when the rockets blaze across the horizon and ignite the celebration of freedom.

The concept of freedom exhilarates every American, this freedom that so many people before us have sacrificed so much to achieve. And it’s the call to protect it that every American feels an obligation to serve, that draws many into the military. But is our freedom really at risk from enemies abroad? What if it all is a lie?

Is there such a thing as a just war? One could justify World War II by saying that it was necessary to stop Hitler and the Nazis, who were engaged in one of the most ghastly massacres in human history. But what of Korea and Vietnam, and the wars in the Middle East? Those wars involved complex geo-political issues, and historians have supplied cogent evidence that they were actually instigated by the U.S., who contrived situations as an excuse to start those wars. You don’t believe me? Take a look at David Wise’s book, The Politics of Lying, published in 1973, for starters. And there are many others which give truth to the lies.

Former President Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, who knew a thing or two about the military, warned us in his farewell address of the increasing dominance of the military in our culture, a military that had allied itself with the machinery of production:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

After World War II, the U.S. government had created a defense policy that sought to contain Communism, which had become the system of government ruling the Soviet Union, a large bloc of nations in eastern Europe and Asia that included Russia, and China, and which had become the designated enemy. In order to keep the Communists at bay, it was determined that a powerful military was necessary. This was spelled out in a little known document created during the Truman administration, known as NSC-68.

It reasoned that the vital interests of the U.S. required the possession of superior military power. It urged the production of stockpiles of nuclear weapons and the increased development of air, sea, and ground forces. It also opened military bases around the world and a strategic military capacity that aligned itself with nations like Great Britain and France to prevent further encroachment of Soviet and Chinese forces. Winston Churchill called this invisible border between Communism and the “Free” World, the Iron Curtain.

It wasn’t long before the U.S. involved itself in another war in Korea justifying it as a fight to contain Communism, which had been established as the system of government in the north of Korea, and which was supported by Communist China. Around this time, Truman commissioned a spy agency to report to him of the trouble spots around the world that threatened national security. This became the CIA. But the agency became much more than Truman intended. When Eisenhower succeeded him, coming to office in 1953, he brought with him John Foster Dulles as his secretary of state. Dulles’s brother, Allen, who had been a leading figure in the organization of the spy agency, soon after became CIA director and molded “the company” as it was called by agents into an organization that focused on covert and illegal operations. The Cold War had settled in.

Not only did the CIA destabilize the governments of Iran and Guatemala, helping to install military dictatorships and in the latter, leading to the genocide of its indigenous people, but it moved into Vietnam, taking over the colonial presence of France, after its military had been defeated. It was part of the U.S. containment policy to halt the growth of Communism represented by Vietnam leader, Ho Chi Minh. At the same time, the U.S. installed a puppet leader in South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the CIA assumed control of the lucrative illegal heroin traffic in Southeast Asia that had been operated by the French.

It was in the aftermath of an escalating Cold War, an increasing stockpile of nuclear weapons and an arms race that had been ongoing since the Soviet development of the atomic bomb in 1949 and intensified with the development of Soviet rockets capable of launching satellites, that Eisenhower made his farewell address and John F. Kennedy became President.

The end result has been major wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East; well over 100 other military engagements of varying sizes; just as many additional conflicts which we have supported through military aid; extermination of possibly as many as 30 million human beings! And we talk about the Nazis. Of course their efforts were much more blatant and direct, and based purely on genocide; our motives generally have been economic.

Most wars in the past were fought because of religion, and there are still elements of that today. But to say that capitalism, as one pundit claims, prevents wars is a joke. It actually has been the major catalyst of warfare since the 19th century. The profit motive has taken over our lives and our leaders. Everywhere we go, there are advertisements trying to sell us something; every political decision is influenced by paid lobbyists or campaign contributions; every research study funded by vested interests. It does not matter who dies so long as someone is getting paid.

Such a dog-eat-dog system has increased the hostility in our nation. Just take a ride on any of our metropolitan highways and observe the driving habits of the average person, trying to get ahead, cutting in an and out, riding on the bumper of the car in front at speeds upward of 70 miles an hour.

Consider the increasing militarization and use of violence in law enforcement, those entrusted to keep the peace and protect us. Now they use painful tasers and even tanks, thanks to a law passed in the 1990s that provides them with Army surplus weapons. What seemed like a crazy satire of a SWAT team invasion in the film Brazil in the early 1980s has turned out to be a forecast of the future — SWAT teams were used about 3,000 times in 1980 but their annual use today has skyrocketed to 50,000. Now you hear about strip searches and tortures, and killing of unarmed individuals by police officers, some even being shot in the back like Walter Scott in South Carolina.

Since 1945, the U.S. has manned as many as 1,000 military bases in nearly 40 nations, with between 200,000-to-750,000 personnel depending on what wars it might be fighting. This does not include its global naval fleet patrolling the oceans, its global air force and intercontinental missiles, or its network of spy satellites overseeing the business of other nations and our designated enemies. For 70 years, the U.S. has maintained and continues to maintain a military fortress that’s currently supported by more than $700 billion annually.

For more than two decades we have been mired in a conflict in the Middle East with only a brief respite during the Clinton years. George Bush, the younger, rectified that by using the lie of WMDs to involve us in hostilities that have no end in sight and which have cost us more than $3 trillion since the beginning of the Gulf War. But they have cost us much more, thousands of veterans devastated by PTSD committing suicide every day and bringing back into our society the violence that they were conditioned to in the Middle East wars. Ironically, these men and women who killed innocent men, women, and children in the name of freedom have become our heroes. But freedom for whom?

Yes, the “Star-Spangled Banner” is more fitting today than ever. It’s set a standard that we seem to want to emulate. It has moved us from a place where once everything was beautiful from “sea to shining sea,” to a place where violence is just around every corner, and where like most things today, everything has become privatized.

Unseen by most of us, private armies operated by corporations have developed. You’ve heard the names from time-to-time in the news: Blackwater (now known as Airscan, changing its name after four of its employees were convicted of murder), Aegis, Dyn Corp, MVM, KBR, among others, some of them directly affiliated with the intelligence community. In the not too distant future, they will be fighting the wars, perhaps against us, the people. The bottom line will become the only determining factor over who lives and who dies, and we will once again be back to a world where the survival of the fittest rules supreme and life once again becomes for most, “short, nasty, and brutish.”

That’s why I cringe when I hear the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I’d prefer “brotherhood from sea to shining sea” rather than “bombs bursting in air.” A world where there are no private armies bent on protecting the profits of the profiteers and corporate plunderers, a world where war will cease when as President Kennedy said, “the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”

One of the nation’s foremost experts on the Underground Railroad, Tom has written eight books about the legendary network — see undergroundrailroadconductor.com