Country Love

On a Thursday night a few months back, I saw a conscientious objector from South Dakota at the University of Toronto. Before I saw him in person, I had heard Jeremy Hinzman’s name in Quaker circles and then on a CBC radio program which narrated stories of Vietnam and Iraqi war resisters in Canada. Hinzman’s quietly humorous voice had impressed me, especially when recounting his “reason for visit” to immigration officials at the Canadian border: “We’re going to visit Friends.” Luckily the border staff didn’t detect the implied F, but if they had noticed it might have spelled trouble for the visitor and his family, for these kind of Friends welcome fugitive soldiers, even shelter them in their homes, just as they did for Underground Railroad refugees more than a century ago.

As an American who immigrated to Canada via Britain, I sympathize with Hinzman’s plight and agree with his position on the war. That’s why I was so keen to hear the views of a former US military insider. I have also shared some aspects of Jeremy’s situation, such as sheltering at the Society of Friends’ Meeting House when I first came to Toronto almost three years ago. Although I was fleeing isolation from my family instead of a command to fight in Iraq, I think displacement is universally disorienting. Moreover, as a peaceful American and daughter of a Navy man, I wanted to learn more about Hinzman’s experience.

That Thursday night I sat near the lecture hall’s west wall in a hard seat which had hosted thousands of engineering students, the chair’s green writing flap covered with announcements for protest rallies. My posture was upright, straining towards the speaker with total attention. I wanted to hear every one of Hinzman’s words, for missing just one would tear the fabric of personal reflection his words wove. Across the aisle to my right, a female student with a shaved head and nose stud was listening as fervently as I was. She even took notes. The student kept nodding her head sincerely, especially when Jeremy described the U.S. military’s methods of desensitizing its soldiers. She was there in the boot camp with him as his comrades shouted “Trained to Kill! Kill We Will!”. She saw the red faces, heard the hoarse voices as they vied to show the blood enthusiasm their superiors demanded. She wrote furiously when Jeremy detailed how the rifle targets began their life as neutral black circles but gradually grew torsos, legs, then entire human bodies. She learned that the military defines killing an enemy soul as “target acquisition.”

A much less sympathetic member of the audience sat five rows in front of me. He had short hair, glasses, and a rigorously pressed cotton shirt. With his rigid posture and starchy conservatism, he had seen fit to visit us from planet McCarthy. Throughout Jeremy’s talk, the ironed guy quivered with indignant energy, waiting to pounce upon his prey’s honour and integrity. He managed to wait until the end of the talk, but then fired off several moral judgments disguised as questions, such as “ Why didn’t you just go to jail? Why didn’t you file for CO status at an earlier time? How could you let down your fellow soldiers?” The heckler finished his interrogation with a final question that wrung what was left of the profound well of contempt he had drawn from all night. With biting doubt soaking every word, he asked, “Do you love your country?”

Until that question came, I hadn’t taken the contrarian’s disdain personally, though I felt sympathy for Hinzman having to defend his private decision to a hostile stranger. When he asked “Do you love your country?” I became even more aware that Jeremy Hinzman and I come from the same country. Like a guilt-seeking missile that doubled as a searchlight of incrimination, the self-righteous question sought to expose the Americans in the audience one by one and scorch them with shame. At least one other listener felt targeted, as he later commented on how painful it is to have someone question your love for your country. I concurred, for who has the right to ask such a thing except our own expatriate selves? Who was this one-man morality police to appoint himself judge of our collective consciences? What unforgivable treason did he blame us for? Most distressingly, why did part of me agree with his point of view?

“Do you love your country?” he had demanded. I was angry at the heckler because his question disturbed me. It made me wonder if my residence in Canada somehow invited, even legitimized his censure. Must a citizen prove her love by planting her life firmly in the soil of the motherland? Love and proximity, respect and closeness — all become meaningful when we suspect they are missing. And if you take away my residency, my US dollars spent, my local taxes paid, what is left in me that is American? The questions kept coming, clumping like barnacles on the original one from the Hinzman talk: “Is my American passport just a document with a bad picture and pages decorated with a jumble of exit and entry stamps, landed papers for Canada, Leave to Remain in Britain? Aren’t they evidence in themselves of my lack of commitment to the republic for which it stands?” After all, I spent a total of seven years in the UK and have now passed almost three in Canada. Does this dilute my essential Americanness like a tepid glass of weak cherry Kool-Aid on the Fourth of July?

I don’t mean to suggest that Hinzman’s challenger would be remotely interested in the soul-searchings of a Missourian, but he did unwittingly start an avalanche of introspection when he asked Hinzman, “Do you love your country?” I wanted to tell heckler boy that I do love the United States, but not for which it stands at the moment. I contest, protest that for me there is plenty to call American, even if I must tease out the fragile web of memory and family myth that have created my identity in order to define it. To phrase it less poetically, the irreducible reality is that my grandfathers and father lie buried in earth which falls within the United States of America’s political borders. This mortal fact, in addition to reluctance to renounce my birthplace, is why I would not exchange my US passport for another, even though I would welcome dual US-Canadian citizenship. I don’t really fancy pledging loyalty to Queen Elizabeth, but I am fond of “O Canada” and the stylish Canadian flag. To me, the striking red maple leaf is more life-affirming than militant stars and stripes, like a choice to pitch your tent in the forest instead of polishing your rifle at ROTC boot camp.

I am certain my father loved his country, and equally certain that his patriotism was less equivocal than mine. What hurts me is that his time in the US Naval Service from 1957-1961 earned him an Old Glory at his funeral in 1995. At the grave site on a leafy hill in Memphis, Missouri, funeral staff carefully folded the flag into a patriotic triangle and handed it to my mother, who hugged it. I’m not sure what she did with it later, but for me the red, white, and blue shroud was both sweetly poignant and a bitter symbol of what caused Dad’s death. In 1958, my innocent father witnessed a high altitude atomic blast from a control tower on Midway Island. The bomb he saw was one of seventy-seven weapons the US government detonated during Operation Hardtack 1, a nuclear testing program in the Pacific Proving Ground.

Our family strongly suspect that exposure to radiation caused the cancerous tumour which started to develop in my father’s brain in 1968 (the year I was born) but not diagnosed until 1981. Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma followed in 1992, returned in 1995 and along with Astrocytoma and Malignant Pleural Effusion, caused his death on November 3, 1995.

How can I love a country which destroyed my dad and which symbolizes imperial and corporate greed to so many? What’s to love in an arrogant nation which has sacrificed soldiers and civilians alike in a suicidal arms race and now feeds the flames of religious and political conflict with every new invasion? Again, I always turn from idiotic foreign policy towards the land and the people themselves. I love the friendly greetings, the porches, elm trees, lightning bugs, and even the pickup trucks. While I despair over the blight of strip malls, billboards, and the brutal supremacy of parking lots, I can’t hate the place where my father’s remains lie, which I pray never loses its pastoral beauty. Every time I fly back to Missouri, I look down at the patchwork of farmland and think about what draws me there, and for me the magnet is both my father’s actual grave and the symbolism of the motherland, not to mention my real mother, grandmothers, brother, sister-in-law, and niece who live in Missouri near both of its great rivers. Understandably, the Memphis graveyard in rural northeastern Missouri means more to me than Pine Hills Cemetery near my house in Scarborough, Ontario. Beautifully forested as Pine Hills is, nobody I love lies there. When I see miniature Canadian flags marking veterans’ graves, no words or images haunt me. I only think how attractive the maple leaf is, how boldly innocent.

On the other hand, I associate the US flag with a thousand classroom mornings at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Liberty, Missouri. Right hand on heart, we chanted to a flag secured to a tall brown wooden pole which rose from a gold stand: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” The flag accepted our homage without comment or ripple. For my part, I accepted the pledge as the most vocal opening ritual of a school day, its significance on a par with sharpening pencils and consuming my carton of USDA milk. I never saw the pledge as a commitment, one which I have tested by supporting war resisters, participating in peace rallies inside and outside the States, and spelling honor with a “u”.

At Franklin Elementary, we learned how to fold our flag into triangles the shape of a paper football (the kind you thump at your friend’s ear in class), never letting one bit of sacred cloth touch the ground. After the flag had been folded as many times as possible, you had to insert the leftover flap just right to prevent the indignity of protruding tufts of fabric. We learned to respect the sanctity of the flag in both its flapping and folded state. As our family later found out, this sturdy triangle stuffed with American pride is supposed to comfort the bereaved relatives of military dead. When bodies come back from places like Vietnam or Iraq, coffin-sized flags proclaim louder than a death certificate why these lives were stolen. But when we were kids at Franklin, the red, white, and blue was innocent of morbid associations, so it thrilled us when the principal appointed members of our class to raise the flag on its white rope pulley. We admired how the flag pole rose high above the the miniature Statue of Liberty that stood guard in front of the school.

In Brownies, where we pledged to serve God, country, and “to live by the Girl Scout Law,” flag-folding skills popped up again, reinforcing reverence. There was even an “Active Citizen” badge in Scouts, which my endearingly purposeful Junior Badges and Signs workbook assures me I completed in May 1980, the year before my father underwent three major brain surgeries. Some requirements for earning the citizen badge included: “Show how to use and care for the flag of the United States. Plan and carry out a flag ceremony” and “Think about and discuss how you and your family used these freedoms during the past weeks: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly” (16). These are indeed freedoms to think about very carefully.

On a bitterly cold February morning in 2003, I helped carry the purple and white Society of Friend’s banner at a Toronto rally that protested the imminent war in Iraq. I was one of an estimated 80,000 people who shouted dissent, proclaiming it with songs, floating cloth doves on sticks, Uncle Sam and Death figures on stilts, and posters that asked “How did our oil get under their sand?” I loved the thrill of mass resistance, the singing, the artistry, but when I saw a US flag with a swastika appliquéd where the stars usually go, I felt visceral anger and hurt. My feelings surprised me. Was my reaction just the natural outcome of formative allegiance-pledging and flag-folding lessons at Franklin Elementary? Or did my anger go deeper than indoctrination challenged?

My gut felt punched again when a group of students sailed by with a banner of US flags redesigned to sport corporate brands this time instead of swastikas. But their banner didn’t bother me as much as their song. Smiling like leads in a high school musical, they belted out the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner”, only replacing “land of the free” with “land of corporate greed.” Until that moment, I didn’t know I harboured any sense of loyalty to this song, but now I hated people associating my anthem with Nike and the Gap. How would they feel if I sang, (frantically trying to fit in the syllables) “True insensitivity in all thy sons command?” Nevertheless, I have the students and Jeremy Hinzman’s heckler to thank for helping me discover my limits, the love I have for a troubled country I criticize but still hold sacred. Maybe if our bombs stopped bursting so much, our flag would earn more respect. Maybe if my father hadn’t suffered from Cold War fallout for twenty-six years, my love for America would feel less vulnerable.

One thought on “Country Love”

  1. Catherine, I just read this post after reading you have a blog. How beautiful is your writing.

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