Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Patriotic Musings

Eric Greitens.  The Heart and the Fist.  Tantor, 2011.  ISBN: 1452630968.

Recently, I found myself stuck in an airport midway between destinations, with time to kill and nothing to read (having finished the small Cynic text that I brought along, a text I was reading because of its direct bearing on my dissertation).  I stepped into a bookshop (of sorts: it was mostly cheap magazines and candy), and Greitens' book grabbed me.  I bought it and read the entire thing through on the last leg of my journey (which ended up being excruciatingly long, owing to Chicago's Midway airport being out of commission).  It is a very good book, thought-provoking and interesting -- a perfect balance between riveting memoir and social commentary (personal and political philosophy?).

I discovered that Greitens and I have several things in common.  Like me, he spent a significant amount of time studying martial arts (boxing for him, taekwondo/karate/jiu-jitsu for me).  Like me, he went to Duke on scholarship (though he was there as an undergrad, while I did not make it in until grad school).  Unlike me, he became a Rhodes Scholar and a world-traveling humanitarian (spending time helping students, refugees, and destitute people in China, Bosnia, Rwanda, and India).  His helplessness in the face of lawless violence in Bosnia and Africa gave him a visceral appreciation for the limits of peaceful activism, and his academic study of international aid programs hardened his conviction that the world's most vulnerable people need more than just love or civil disobedience (in the tradition of Gandhi or Martin Luther King).  After completing a dissertation on humanitarian aid, he took this conviction all the way to the bank, enlisting in the US Navy and joining the SEALs (where he served as an officer in the field, commanding men on active duty around the world as they did what American war heroes do today).  Today, he helps American veterans re-integrate into civil society, and sees his military experience as something really positive (for him and for the world).

Greitens' story is very compelling, on many levels.  I have to admit that he inspires me.  In the wake of his book, part of me regrets that I have always been so timid and retiring.  While I did serve an LDS mission for reasons like those that sent him into humanitarian work, I think his work was more immediately useful to those he came to serve than mine was.  My intentions were just as good, and I did some really good things, but in the end I helped people less than he did: people did not want what I had to offer (religion); they really needed what he gave them (time, unstructured personal attention, food, medicine).  I wish I could go back in time and do more real community service as an LDS missionary, and a lot less proselytizing door-to-door (which was what our local leadership wanted, even though it was miserable for everyone -- for us, and for the vast majority of the people we contacted).  I wish I spent more time in clinics packing contraceptives (or whatever: the contraceptives where what we had to pack in Santiago de Compostela, where the LDS missionaries had a good relationship with the local chapter of Medicos do Mundo), and less time getting shouted at for interrupting people's work, naps, and play with an untimely plea that they come unto Jesus.  I wish I had volunteered more at homeless shelters, and spent less time attending those meetings wherein we discussed local leadership's latest ill-conceived plan for filling our baptismal fonts with new converts.  I wish I could go back and take my name tag off, letting people tell me whatever they wanted without feeling any obligation to convert them or reduce their concerns to a problem easily solved by joining another church.  I think I really did connect with some people in a powerful way as an LDS missionary, and I look back with gratitude and appreciation on the experience, but it certainly could have been better.  Greitens gave people water, food, medicine, and time (to say whatever they wanted, to connect with another human being who just wanted them to be happy, without demanding a complicated ritual for that happiness).  I envy him that. 

Greitens' undergraduate experience was very different from mine.  While I became a retiring hermit, attending class and the library, he became a regular humanitarian volunteer.  He had the guts to go out into one of the "worst" neighborhoods of Durham, North Carolina, and take up boxing with a trainer whose "gym" was an empty parking lot (where they set up a heavy bag when the weather permitted).  I was too daunted by the prospect of membership fees to keep up my martial arts training as an undergrad (though I did attend several clubs, none of which I really liked -- though I am grateful to the people who ran them).  I could have gotten a job.  I could have started early on Brazilian jiu-jitsu (which I knew I wanted to do at some point).  But I was daunted.  I did spend some good time in the university weight-room, which paid off in big ways (rehabbing an old injury and proofing me well against further injuries: I did not waste my time utterly).  I guess I am wishing that I were less anti-social as a young man, that I were more pro-active about seeking out opportunities to build skills and enlarge my community of friends.  Greitens just walks into places I would love to have been, but that I would never have dared to enter (until recently -- and even now, I am still kind of gun-shy).

What I most envy Greitens is his unique military experience.  Navy SEAL training did several things for him: (1) it made him a member of an elite, close-knit fraternity; (2) it gave him some unique survival skills (not least among them a hard-earned conviction that he is mentally and physically durable); and (3) it allowed him to fill a great need that he observed (and felt very keenly) in the world around him.  Like Greitens, I have had vital encounters with close-knit communities, experiences that served the same purposes in my life, but mine always come with a bitter aftertaste (when I move away, or worse -- when I learn more about my group and my connection to its mission comes undone).  For a long time, the LDS church was to me what the Navy is to Greitens.  I wanted to know everything I could about the church.  I was excited about it.  I saw it doing great things for the world.  Then I took a long look at its history, at the things it is actually doing, and I came away disillusioned (not because it does no good, but because it seemed to me that there was more bad than good, or that the good was not quite good enough: I don't expect everyone to see it this way, but I cannot change my own experience or alter my judgment until someone gives me sufficient reason).  For much of my life, another communal anchor in my life was the martial arts studio run by Jim Haymore in Gainesville, Georgia.  But my LDS mission work (and subsequent studies in college) took me far from Gainesville, and I have only been able to visit sporadically since returning to the United States.  I miss my Gainesville karate friends, many of whom have followed my example and scattered all over the country, pursuing many different employment and life opportunities.  I still study martial arts, and I have some good friends in my current community, but we are not yet forged together in the bonds of suffering (the way Navy SEALs are in training and in combat).  We are not quite family.  The university has also been a community in my life, but my relationship with it has never been close.  I feel very much like a superfluous cog in a machine that already has too many pieces: I have friends among the faculty and students I know, especially the students, but I do not feel that I am making a vital, personal contribution to something important.  I am constantly expecting the department I happen to work for to fire me and hire someone with a better CV (someone more like Eric Greitens, probably: "In addition to having a PhD, I am also a Rhodes Scholar, an international humanitarian, and a Navy SEAL").  I worry that my academic work has little relevance in the narrow audience of people who might actually read it, and no relevance outside that audience.

What does all this personal angst have to do with patriotism?  Well, I complain a lot on this blog.  I talk about why I don't trust organizations, why I don't believe ideologies, why I find group-think problematic.  In religion, this makes me something of an atheist: no matter who you are, I probably can find something wrong with your religion, especially if it has ever been organized.  In politics, this makes me a cynic.  The United States of America becomes for me another pretty facade: we inspire people with the Declaration of Independence (all people are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), and then hit them hard with the Constitution (your life, liberty, and happiness belong to legislative, judicial, and executive oligarchs and their unelected bureaucrats, because of interstate commerce).  The LDS church inspired me with its pledge to embrace all truth (Joseph Smith once declared that "truth is Mormonism"), and then told me that some truths should be hidden, lied about, and otherwise ignored.  The USA inspire me with an ideal of freedom, and then reduce that freedom to something weak and small -- I have the freedom to petition the bureaucrats, who may or may not hear me: the rule of simple law that everyone knows has given way to the rule of complex law that nobody knows, because it is too unwieldy and contradicts itself.  I really want to find something to believe in, some community of people sufficiently like me that I can live with them usefully, peacefully, helpfully -- but I am not comfortable ignoring the bad stuff that goes on in human communities.  I need the freedom to question.  I need the freedom to imagine alternatives to the way we do things.  Greitens found that freedom, and the Navy did not show him the door (the way the church did to me, the way I fear that the university is going to do to me).

Greitens represents a piece of the United States of America that still inspires me.  Unlike certain people (mostly politicians, bureaucrats, and citizens like me), he did not watch from the sidelines and spout uninformed ideology (theory without practice).  He researched.  He looked at what the world needed.  He came to a conclusion that made sense to him.  He acted on that conclusion.  He risked his own life.  He saved others' lives, hunting down and frustrating men who are demonstrably dangerous to the peaceful survival of the human species.  I admire the balls (or as Aristotle would say, the megalopsychia) that he demonstrated.  In the process, he made lifelong friends and family.  He became part of a meaningful community.  He found a way to contribute permanently to the growth of something that he views (with reason) as a net-positive.  It was not easy.  It was not simple.  It did not come without some risk (risk that cowards like me shy away from).

Greitens' book leaves me with a desire to believe in humanity.  I want to find a community like his team of SEALs -- a group whose morals I can believe in, and more importantly, take active part in.  I sometimes feel that I live life as a lonely outsider, and I am not really adequate on my own (for myself or for my family: they need more than just what I can provide to live well).  I want to be patriotic, but I also want to be honest.  And I want to do things that matter to me, things that I find compelling moral reason to do.

1 comment:

  1. This post rambles all over the place. Here is a patch on my ambivalence toward patriotism: one the one hand, I want to be inspired by community, and I find some communities inspiring. On the other hand, no community is perfect. Eric Greitens even found some problems in his SEAL community, which he dealt with appropriately (expose the bad guys and take them out of their positions of responsibility). I long for a community that needs me, with my doubt and weakness and insecurity, and I want to be strong for that community. I want to contribute. But I am wary of being swindled (again, and again).

    I love my country, but I also fear it.