Book Excerpt Maj. Danny

What Patriotism Means to a Veteran of America’s Forever Wars

The following excerpt from Maj. Danny Sjursen’s new book, “Patriotic Dissent” is printed with permission from Heyday Books and is available for purchase on their site.

Patriotism is one of those rather difficult words to define, to nail down in any agreed-upon way. It is also a word whose official—or at least dictionary—definition has changed over time. For example, Merriam-Webster now defines patriotism simply as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” This seven-word explication of one of the more powerful forces in American and global life is striking in its very vagueness. Furthermore, this dictionary lists nationalism as a synonym for patriotism. This is as curious as it is potentially dangerous. A basic grasp of modern world history demonstrates the extraordinary differences between simple patriotism and the far more traditional chauvinism and superiority typically inherent in nationalism. After all, most serious historians agree that nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much like religious sectarianism in the eleventh to seventeenth centuries, was responsible for the preponderance and the bloodiest of European and global wars.

For the moment, however, let us allow the dictionary to speak for itself. It defines nationalism as “loyalty and devotion to a nation.” Loyalty, as opposed to love for its definition of patriotism. These are not the same sentiments. Is it not possible to love something or someone yet, due to its or their bad behavior, not demonstrate blind or reflexive loyalty to that entity? For example, if I love the US Army but it adopts illegal and immoral torture as its official policy towards prisoners, might I not feel bound to loyally serve in that cause? Couldn’t I conclude that true love for the institution demands that I adhere to its former, presumably authentic values? Indeed, since leaders of armies regularly change, to whom or what should the lover channel his or her loyalty? Perhaps love even dictates temporary disloyalty while the loving soldier attempts to reform, reframe, or redefine—whether backwards or forwards—the values of the organization in question. Might not love sometimes trump loyalty or, at least, redefine it? And, while this discussion has thus far centered, theoretically (or perhaps not so), on the army, it stands to reason that the same could be said of the interconnection of love and loyalty to the country itself.

Furthermore, Merriam-Webster provides—contra its entry on patriotism—an extended definition for nationalism that raises further issues with labeling the two terms synonyms. Below its main definition for nationalism, the dictionary adds, “especially: a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” This, too, is rather different from a simple “love and devotion” to country. Rather, nationalism according to this construction—which is accurate, I think—implies an acclamation, almost lionization, of one’s country above other sovereign states. What’s more, as if to prove my point about the warlike perils of nationalism, the single example provided by the dictionary for the use of the term in a sentence is: “Intense nationalism was one of the causes of the war.” 

As I mentioned, the definitions of words evolve through the years and with the prevailing culture of the times. Consider that the first edition of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, in 1828, defined patriotism as “love of one’s country; the passion which aims to serve one’s country, either in defending it from invasion, or protecting its rights and maintaining its laws and institutions in vigor and purity. Patriotism is the characteristic of a good citizen, the noblest passion that animates a man in the character of a citizen.” This more complex entry for the term at hand does, as I see it, two things differently from the contemporary definition. First, we can see at the end of the passage that it clearly aligns patriotism with goodness, with “nobility,” framing the sentiment as the utmost duty of a positivist citizen. At the same time, however, it expands and complicates the notion of patriotism by implying that this can be achieved not simply through physical protection of the country but also by preserving and safeguarding the “rights,” “laws,” and “institutions” of the state.

By this definition, from nearly two centuries ago, there is far more room for maneuver in one’s personal take on patriotism. Everything hinges on how one interprets the nature of a country’s guaranteed rights to the citizenry (in a democratic or parliamentary system like the US or Great Britain), the ever-evolving scope of written or common law, and the spirit of the state’s institutions. Thus, in the United States, a self-styled nation of laws rather than rotating authority figures and leaders, which is constructed on a Constitution that delegates power to three presumably coequal institutions of government and which specifically annotates (originally ten) core rights of the citizenry, patriotism, by this original definition, has as much to do with “maintaining” the “vigor and purity” of those aspects of civil society as with defending (as a soldier does) the borders from invasion. Are we to understand that the modern simplification of patriotism to “love” and “devotion” to country encompasses these rather nuanced complexities? I for one would assert that this is so.

What, then, of nationalism by the standards of 1828? The term is certainly not listed as a synonym for patriotism, but then again, Merriam-Webster provides no synonyms or example contextual sentences in that bygone age. Rather instructively, the word nationalism doesn’t appear at all. Nationally, national, nationalize, and nationality are included, but as a defined ideology of “national consciousness exalting one nation above all others,” the concept doesn’t yet exist. Indeed, this is a vital historical reality. Nationalism, as a philosophy, as a recorded sentiment—like most -ism words—is relatively new. According to the modern Merriam-Webster entry, the first recorded use of the term in the modern sense occurred in 1798., however, dates the first use of the term to the 1830s to 1840s. 

Remember, of course, that the nation-state as currently constructed and imagined is itself a relatively young concept. Before the mid- to late-eighteenth century, the vast majority of human beings lived under multinational imperial systems, dynastic near-feudal entities, or isolated provincial constructs. Loyalty or “devotion” was often divided between an absolute monarch, an imperial potentate, a feudal landlord, and family or clan leadership. 

The state, as defined by strict borders, an ethnic, cultural, or political identity, and an organized bureaucratic structure that touched one’s daily life really only emerged between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, depending on the country in question. Generally borderless islands, like Britain (with its shared parliamentary and legalistic tradition) and Japan (boasting a homogenous ethno-religious culture), may have made a relatively early and comparably seamless transition to nation-statehood, but continental entities such as Germany (not unified as a state until 1871) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which didn’t fracture into somewhat ethnically distinct countries until after defeat in World War I) lagged further behind.

Furthermore, the successor states within the Ottoman Empire (which resisted final dismantlement until 1924) were largely Western inventions with suspiciously linear borders and often containing—for example, in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—decidedly multiethnic and sectarian diffusions. In these states, still some of the most unstable and violent in the modern world, the nature and place of the nation, nationalism, and the state itself remain highly contested. Much the same can be said of many postcolonial countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Just ask an American or Soviet soldier unlucky enough to have fought in Afghanistan. 

In fact, it’s unclear that the nation-state in its current form is necessarily here to stay or the preferred social and organizational construct of most or all people. To assume so is in itself a form of Eurocentrism or Western-centrism, the commonly held belief that because first Europe and then North America coalesced into such entities, this is the highest form of socio-structural development. Indeed, ISIS—no matter how ideologically abhorrent—represented a not altogether unpopular shift in the opposite direction. Their dream of a transnational, multiethnic, and potentially continent-spanning caliphate based on shared religious dogma constituted an outright rejection of the West-initiated nation-state model and, particularly, the postcolonial artificial states that the Europeans bequeathed to the people of the Middle East and that the United States has assiduously maintained. All of this must necessarily complicate any simple discussion of patriotism.

The point is that patriotism and nationalism are not the same thing and no official, mutually agreed-upon definition of patriotism exists today, nor did one in the past. This having, I hope, been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, why, then, should the contemporary generation of Americans, in an age of endless war, accept the simplistic and constrictive bounds of patriotism as so often currently defined?


Like any standard irrational American male, I love sports. Watching the games, arguing strategies, and especially attending sporting events in person is all gravy to me, a well-needed distraction from the complexity, darkness, and absurdity of the “real” world. Add to that that as a notable extrovert, I enjoy being the center of attention, and one would expect me to enjoy what I’m about to describe. 

Only I didn’t. I’d developed into quite an adopted fan during my years in Kansas as the team’s low-budget, small-ball, underdog persona struck a chord. Add the insanely cheap ticket prices—at least compared to those of my New York Yankees—and suffice it to say we watched a lot of baseball in Kauffman Stadium. So, back in graduate school, my then-wife secretly emailed a public affairs representative for the Kansas City Royals baseball team. She sent pictures of me from my recent Afghan deployment, a short bio, and a description of my army career thus far. 

She knew, as I did, that the Royals—and just about every other professional sports franchise by that time—honored one active or veteran service member at some point during each game. She also knew and appreciated, as a good thrifty New England Puritan, that the military honoree for the game received several free tickets in not-so-shabby seats. Sure enough, I was chosen. Much to my chagrin, my face and combat duty pictures were plastered across the jumbotron; a camera was pointed in my face, forcing me to awkwardly wave for far too long; my accomplishments were announced for tens of thousands of people; and finally I received a raucous standing ovation. No one dared keep their seats in such moments in the post-9/11 era: not in “conservative” Kansas City nor in “liberal” Boston. It just wasn’t and isn’t done.

Already decidedly antiwar, in the midst of penning a book critical of the Iraq invasion, and increasingly convinced that it was actually social workers, teachers, and nurses who belonged on the fields and jumbotrons of America’s sporting rituals, I wasn’t too pleased with the whole charade. Also, in an era in which there seemed little in the way of a large-scale, serious, organized antiwar movement and no military draft to ensure that average citizens had “skin in the game” of these wars, the whole thanks-via-applause aspect of the affair felt vapid, to say the least. 

Yet it wasn’t just that. The Royals, like every other damn sports team in the country, weren’t satisfied—or secure enough—with one military recognition. No, first there had to be an embarrassingly gigantic American flag displayed and a military and/or police–first responder color guard during the pregame. Then, during the seventh-inning stretch, the crowd couldn’t possibly just sing the traditional folksy ditty “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Now it had become obligatory to follow that up with “God Bless America.” The nationwide agreement on this particularly national-pride song was especially curious. I never received a memo or a ballot beforehand; it just happened, seemingly overnight. The peculiar yet profound, combination of presumed core religiosity and overt nationalism of the tune is striking. 

Presumably, no one informed the commissioners and team owners of the sundry sports franchises of America that “One Nation Under God” wasn’t slapped onto the end of the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” wasn’t printed on paper currency until 1956 and 1957, respectively. These (perhaps fashionably) late moves were, of course, only made in response to the perceived atheism of communism at the height of the Cold War as a way to drum up nationalism, encourage unity, and differentiate the supposedly God-fearing United States from the evil, soulless heretics of the Soviet Union and Red China. My guess is the millionaires and billionaires atop the corporate athletics-industrial complex wouldn’t have known or even cared that they didn’t know such uncomfortable truths.

The new definition of patriotism as constituting, for the vast majority of Americans (less than 0.5 percent of whom actually serve in the all-volunteer active duty military), little more than the self-consciously public display—in a variety of ways—of “thanks” to veterans and, besides occasional first responders, only military veterans is a newer phenomenon, even, than the term nationalism itself. And its pervasiveness transcends the realm of sports. Repeated loudspeaker announcements in airport terminals express thanks and welcome to soldiers and veterans, and flight attendants also regularly encourage passengers to honor service members on the plane. Civilians load their bumpers with “Support Our Troops” and yellow-ribbon stickers. And most of all, whenever an active-duty soldier or a veteran “outs” himself to a stranger in passing, the conversation seemingly must stop long enough for the civilian to thank the military man and or woman for his or her service. 

This vacuous culture of “thanks” has truly gotten out of hand, hasn’t it? Be honest. I’m just old enough to remember a time, before the 9/11 attacks, when honoring soldiers and veterans was mainly relegated to two main days of the year: Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. There were parades, war movie marathons on television, supportive newspaper editorials, and special events at sporting events on these two calendar dates. And you know what? That felt sufficient. It really did. Because taking this veritable soldier worship to the level society has in the twenty-first century can be perilous for the republic. 

For decades and now more than ever, poll after poll has established that the only public institution that large majorities of Americans trust is the US military—not the presidency, the courts, or the media, and certainly not the Congress. This simply isn’t healthy, not for a democratic republic, at least. Maybe it would be appropriate for a tin-pot military dictatorship, but for an aspirational constitutional republic? Hardly.

Some of this gratuitous adulation is sincere and well-meaning. Certainly, no one wants to return to the (historically exaggerated, it must be said) bad old days of Vietnam when some antiwar protesters blamed the average troops, called them “baby killers,” or ignored their trauma upon redeployment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t serve the soldier or veteran particularly well. It doesn’t change his or her life, doesn’t stymie the record twenty-two veteran suicides a day or slow the pace of multiple deployments in indecisive and ill-defined wars for the active trooper. 

Nonetheless, many of us in the military and veteran community would gladly trade 90 percent of the inordinate “thanks” for an engaged citizenry concerned with and educated in foreign affairs. For the war machine, driven as it is by a profit-motivated military-industrial complex fronted by arms-dealing defense contractors, counts on—requires—collective public apathy. True, active citizens who read the global news daily think critically about America’s role in the world and the prudence or prospects of US military operations: they don’t want that. Yet that’s what this country’s soldiers and veterans deserve. What they patently don’t warrant is to be ignored between the thanks and the occasional check picked up by a kind soul at TGI Fridays, or to be shuffled around the Greater Middle East from one hopeless war to another by an unchecked president and an indifferent Congress like so many toy soldiers or chess pieces. Want to genuinely support America’s veterans? Pay attention, watch how you vote, and create fewer of them.

Only that’s not how most Americans think or act, not by a long shot. In the absence of a military draft, more than 99 percent of the population chooses to pass on military service. Unworried about the prospect of actually serving in one of the military’s many wars—the armed forces are now fighting, dying, or assisting local militaries in combat in over twenty-five countries daily—and caught up in the standard struggle to earn a living wage, most citizens tune out foreign policy completely. Most of those engaged in politics at all, focus on the “kitchen table” issues they perceive do affect them, such as healthcare, taxes, and social security.

If we’re brutally honest, we’d admit that an embarrassing segment of even educated Americans couldn’t pick out three of the seven countries the US bombs daily on an unlabeled map. Probably less than 1 percent could have both geographically identified and properly pronounced the name of the country of Niger, one of the more obscure deployment locales for the US military, where in 2017 four American soldiers were ambushed and killed by an Islamist militia that hadn’t even existed in September 2001. The takeaway is simple: in a postdraft, all-volunteer military in an age of endless war, the vast majority of the citizenry has divorced attentiveness to America’s wars—or even basic knowledge about them—from their definition of patriotism.

So in 2020, nineteen years into America’s longest period of continuous warfare, three basic conceptions of patriotism exist. The first two are prevalent, pervasive, and normative; the third appears to the untrained observer to be nearly extinct, or at least extremely rare and hidden from view, especially by the media.

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The first, which I’ve described in detail, is what I call “Pageantry Patriotism.” Primarily focused on self-conscious public displays of gratitude and ceremonies, it sadly best matches modern American culture in this materialist, millennial age. This is the patriotism of flags, parades, anthems, pledges of allegiance, yellow ribbons, and vapid thanks. The beauty of it is that it is worn as a badge of honor, a point of pride, but requires no work, no critical thinking, no engagement with current events or inconvenient facts. It is a feeling, first and foremost. Patriotism is thereby simple, instinctual, reflexive. Pageant patriots exist on the traditional political left and right but in recent decades have mainly coalesced on the neoconservative, militarist right. 

In this framework, pageant patriotism can also be combative. Pageant patriots take as a starting point not just that support for any and all American wars and support for the troops therein engaged are nearly synonymous but that the former is actually requisite for the latter. Pageant patriots define their own patriotism as much by opposition to alleged nonpatriots as by any positive sense of what they are for. This has, in the past and even today, manifested itself through such pugnacious phrases as “America: Love It or Leave It!” Pageantry patriotism, much like the dictionary definition of nationalism discussed previously, is thus as much about “exalting” itself “above others.” 

As such, it serves as a cudgel for the self-styled patriot to wield against real or perceived ideological enemies, usually some imagined conglomeration of traitors, communists, hippies, Muslims, immigrants, or just basic liberals. These are the folks who were up-in-arms shocked by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel in protest of racially charged police brutality during the playing of the national anthem. For them, another’s remonstration—heck, even another’s failure to cohere with the pageant patriot’s preferred nationalist dogma—is judged a personal and public threat. In that sense, this is the most inherently insecure of all patriotisms.

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The next most common contemporary construction of American patriotism is what I’ll call “Passively Principled Patriotism.” Most prevalent on the centrist political right and the establishment Democratic left, this version is often equally surface-level but less combative and usually tinged with at least some hint of (theoretical) complexity. These folks still either subscribe to or, in these intolerant times of endless war, have acquiesced to most of the dog and pony shows and obligatory “thanks” associated with pageantry patriotism, but they at least like to believe they support America and its troops well, because they do good. This is what the US is, or at least has been and should aspire again to be: a force for good in the world. 

They, too, mainly accept at face value the modern “love” for and “devotion” to country Merriam-Webster definition. Passive principled patriots, unlike the pure pageantry crowd, may not always support the government in power (especially if it is conservative Republican) or agree with the prudence of some of its particular wars, but for the most part, they limit their opposition to muted complaints, ad hominem attacks on a particular political leader (Bush, Trump), and voting out that figure, all within the constraints of the established two-party system. 

Passive patriots are fearful patriots. Often vaguely liberal, or embarrassingly centrist conservative, they’re terrified of the ready pejorative attacks from pageantry patriots. They remember well, even if too young to have lived through it, the Cold War and the incessant slights brandished against those not deemed patriotic enough in the public political space: “un-American,” “soft” on communism (note the sexual connotation), and “weak” on defense (note the masculinity connotation). “Never again” has been their mantra ever since. If necessary, they will out-patriot the pageantry patriots! 

Thus, when 9/11 occurred and the “war on terror” began, they were all in, had stockpiled yellow ribbons, and were ready as could be to join the mandatory hyperadulation-of-the-troops culture. And when some of those wars (mainly Iraq) went bad and they either truly opposed them or saw a political opportunity in faux opposition, old-school, in-the-streets, Vietnam-era protest was out of the question. That would have been too risky, opened them to attack. No, the passive patriots play it safe, stay between the lines, and work, always work, within the existing system. For their sins, the troops and the republic have suffered mightily.

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The final, least common form of patriotism—and the one to which I unapologetically subscribe and that I hope to reframe for the mainstream—is what I call “Participatory Principled Patriotism” or, in times of dark necessity such as ours, “Patriotic Dissent.” 

It is a patriotism grounded in the more idealistic aspects of Noah Webster’s 1828 definition, placing maintenance of America’s aspirational values—”laws,” “rights,” and “institutions”—with vigor and purity over the easy, obvious requirement to defend one’s country’s borders. It is a patriotism that takes seriously the soldier’s and officer’s oath—which I proudly took upon each promotion during my career—to “support and defend” the Constitution of the United States. I served three presidents, in two separate wars, for a total of eighteen years—the great preponderance of my adult life. My loyalty to each was significant, to be sure, but ultimately ephemeral. My higher loyalty, by oath and by military tradition, was to the purported—if wildly imperfect—values of the American republican experiment.

Participatory patriotism isn’t new; it has a long, proud history. Politicians, artists, and veterans alike have, across the centuries, pushed back when the majoritarian tide too often acquiesced to hegemonic and civil liberties–squelching phases in American foreign and domestic policy. Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Marine Corps General Smedley Butler (a two-time recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor), as I’ll soon demonstrate, personified this tradition. I and my many (though largely invisible) antiwar peers are but minor successors to these great men. When they saw their government, the representatives of their country, take the nation on the path of empire, domestic oppression, and values degradation, as we do now, they risked careers, reputations, and personal safety to defend the dream of the United States. Laying it all on the line: that’s participatory principled patriotism.

Still, it is a dangerous path to embark upon. One’s combat veteran status will not save him or her. Take the case of Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard. A serving US Army major, Iraq War veteran, and Democratic presidential candidate for 2020, her unshakeable antiwar stance has earned her exactly what? Vitriol and slander. And not just from social media trolls. Mainstream media pundits, serious national newspapers, and famous political figures (think Hillary Clinton) labeled her a “Russian asset,” a “Vladimir Putin apologist,” even un-American. I’ve suffered the same attacks on a lesser scale. 

As Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1967, when he finally publicly opposed the Vietnam War, “dissent”—even today—is all too often equated with “disloyalty.” Dissent always, but especially within the military, is a dangerous game. Far easier to subscribe to pageantry patriotism, or to hedge one’s bet and be a vaguely liberal passive patriot. These are risk-free, consequence-free ways to live. They are also cowardly and detrimental to the dream of an inclusive, humble, example-setting America, what President Abraham Lincoln called “a more perfect union.” 

Not too long ago, I received a “snail mail” letter that listed my son’s name, school, teacher, and address. It was a threat for my apparently unforgivable sin of opposing the American warfare state. I don’t scare easy, but this note—seemingly written in lipstick—shook me to my core. In a certain sense, it defined these tragic times. No wonder most Americans hedge, or jump into pageantry patriotism with eyes closed and both feet forward. It is what we called at West Point the easy wrong over the hard right.

All of this is to say that popular conceptions of patriotism, at least in the current, post-9/11, forever-war, American setting, have lost their way. And it’s hardly a partisan problem. Patriotism—whether expressed under Republican George W. Bush, Democrat Barack Obama, or whatever the heck Donald Trump is—has come to mean little more than “supporting” the nation’s troops. Not only is this semantically problematic, but it also robs the term—and, more important, the powerful sentiment—of its weighty meaning and citizen obligations. As previously noted, in its 1828 conception patriotism not only was the highest duty of a citizen but also demanded that one maintain the vigor and purity of the rights, laws, and institutions of the country. 

Since, apparently, the United States is an aspirational republic, even a model society, then, logically, patriotism would largely entail shepherding and protecting its democratic structures and values. In this more immersive, citizen-involved definition, “thanking” the troops and veterans would seem a rather minor aspect of the vital whole. This, then, raises questions about the role of loyalty and, conversely, dissent in the positivist practice of patriotism. If the government—and thus the policies—of a nation has gone off course, if its rights, laws, and institutions have lately been spurned, would not public dissent be the proper response? As Merriam-Webster originally framed it and as I’ve herein argued, couldn’t opposition to one’s government be considered the highest form of “love,” “devotion” (the key words in the current dictionary definition), and “loyalty” to country? The answer seems obvious.

To a soldier then, or a veteran, can dissent be patriotic, and if so, how? On the surface, it seems unlikely. After all, military men and women work and live under a chain of command, in an institution that demands discipline and followership. If soldiers ignored every order they didn’t like, the military would fall apart, lose all semblance of effectiveness. No one disputes this self-evident reality. However, there’s another, rarely considered, more nuanced view of all this. And it is well that there is, because as Albert Maysles once poignantly warned, “Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance,” and I’d argue that that is precisely what the vacuous veneer of pageantry patriotism—and the discipline it enforces—logically leads to: tyranny.

Remember that military officers swear their oath not to the particular president or government then in charge, nor to the flag or the current commanding general of the armed forces, but to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The Constitution! Sounds an awful lot like Merriam-Webster’s 1828 definition, maintaining the vigor and purity of rights, laws, and institutions, no? What, after all, is the US Constitution if not a set of laws that defines the structure and practice of the republic’s institution and, towards the end, in amendments, delineates citizens’ rights. 

Thus, should the loyal and dutiful soldier’s or veteran’s government eschew the core, traditional values laid out in the Constitution—say, at a minimum, by waging congressionally unsanctioned wars—one could, as I would, cogently argue that dissent, in a variety of potential forms, would be the proper patriotic response. Luckily for the lonely, modern dissenter, there’s a long and storied, though oft-repressed, tradition of dissent—particularly among combat veterans—in American history.

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