These United States of White America, my Drill Sergeant barked at us one day. If you can’t tell, this DS’ bark marked the start of the block of instruction meant to teach us about race. Indeed, plenty of the more rural members grumbled, thought it always seemed out of proportion, a little too emotional, like a case of the “the lady doth protest too much,” more than anything else. Of course, I too was a right-leaning citizen at the time and I dismissed the DS’ statement as I was truly drinking the middle class Kool-Aid back then and thought such views as disruptive and unneeded.
Another Drill Sergeant, a Black man, went on to explain how in Basic, his Battle Buddy was a redneck with a Confederate flag tattoo. Yet they ended up being great friends. I think this all spoke to a worldview I held back then—hoped for, really—and had joined the Army for and to which Basic seemed to highlight and extol- the Army was here to create citizen-soldiers, with whom no remnants of previous roles would matter. As my recruiter told me- it melts you down and builds you back whole. And to me this meant only caring about the nation- not race, no nothing. Army as a cult, or religion, I suppose. I would soon find out that I was taking this conversion process a little too seriously, for many others did not. Not only was I wholly gullible, but my ideas, as diffuse as any young man’s and with the same certainty, were easily melted into this Basic training indoctrination. Or, perhaps I saw what I wanted to.
Now, this essay came about because I was asked to talk about the Army reneging on contracts with non-citizens. And I’m not sure why I initially wavered. After all, here I was, a writer, one who promised himself not to settle into a middle class quietude and now I was going to be silent on such an important matter? After all, the reason I had shed my quietude after the military was because I knew I needed to exhibit more moral courage, to speak up for the sake of my nation—and world.
One could, should they be cruel enough, even liken this wavering in me to a scared child- the darkness of the night holding too many creatures and so wrapped in my flag, with eyes closed that I think I’ll be safe. But I realized it was a case of having a bit of guilt, accepting the base idea of Americana and not wanting to raise this specific case because I, as a naturalized citizen—not born here, not of the “blood and soil” of this nation (not the latter, at least)—would always be subject to ejection for being too vocal.
In other words, in contrast to what I had believed I knew my conversion was not accepted by others. After all, one cannot assume any citizen, or any human—least of all a citizen of a democracy—should remain “silent”, despite all instinct to do otherwise. What my reaction speaks to, besides the inherent base heuristics of apes, is the strength of the forces aligned against the Enlightenment values of this nation. What it also speaks to is the specter of an inherently unjust power does. It strikes fear certainly, but it also doesn’t rely on much more than violence, hence cannot build, and certainly cannot offer even a modicum of what an ideal citizen looks like—be it American or human—because though it’s powerful, though it strikes fear, it is nothing more than an agglomeration of fear itself—along with heartless cruelty.
The funny thing about all this is that I see myself as an American, never doubted it for a second, yet I know how futile it will be for a brown man to claim his veteran status as a reason to be left alone by this heartless, tribal mob looking to ethnically cleanse this nation.
Reading Arendt, she mentions how Jewish veterans thought themselves separate from the classical Nazi or anti-Semitic framing of Jews. This was further highlighted when she mentions how some of the better humans of that time thought it okay to expend their energies trying to save Jews if they were veterans or heroes. As one can see, whatever the mindset, it accepted the framing of Jews needing to go above and beyond in terms of proving their humanity, assuming they had anything to prove to begin with.
And before you derail this train of thought by evoking Godwin’s law—that useless stifler of debates that fails to understand that the ideology got there in quite normal terms, terms we can understand even today—allow me to present this comparison in terms of a sliding scale, even if there are Nazis in our streets today.
But let’s leave this digression and go back to that moment in Basic training—these United States of White America—and my own conversion. See, my DS had pointed out how America was biased towards whites as an attempt to show that he would not tolerate such biases in his platoon, his Army and that race was secondary to the mission. It was also an attempt to deal with the racial issues that any group of Americans must deal with. I talked about my own conversion, my own idea of what being an American meant, continues to means. I came to find out that in the Army, few others took this seriously, merely taking previously held beliefs about the world and simply absorbing that into their role: “sand-niggers” abroad and both “sand-niggers” and “niggers” at home (better discussed here).
Whatever my role as a citizen or soldier was in the Army, I took it to at least mean caring for the nation more so than oneself. So when I left the Army, I took up quietude in service of this belief. I left this quietude when I realized that staying quiet would be to my nation’s detriment; even if the forces I was up against (heartless, cruel) saw me as subhuman and especially because speaking up required more courage. Because being a good citizen of this nation, and world, has more to do with acting humane and having ideals to live up to rather than falling into the bath of the energy-filled, and easy to grasp, tribal hatred.
For our nation to survive, we must think of citizenship in terms of humanity or—as I think of it—in terms of action, and we cannot lose to the idea of citizenship in terms of ethnic markers. I don’t mean that the idea of being an American is fixed, but that the other side wishes the discussion over this meaning to be over. This discussion, however, can never be over and must be an ever engaging one with all our citizens and to be citizens taking part. What matters, then, are the rules for this discussion and how that is carried out. Is it to be some ethnically-based heirarchy that silences and removes people or one based on the rules of egalitarianism?
To be American is to love and act in a way so as to preserve and better this nation, and the entire human endeavor. Foolish me? Perhaps, but we must live up to something. This means including segments of society being silenced and those standing alongside them while also upholding these values. The alternative is too dark to dwell on.
Some groups that are worth your time:
Vets Against Islamaphobia