A different reason to honor the American flag

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By Jonathan Bernstein

Bloomberg View

There’s been way more than enough written about Donald Trump’s battle with kneeling football players — especially with a major crisis underway in Puerto Rico — but one thing really does bother me that’s been revealed during this brouhaha: the extent to which many Americans have accepted the anti-democratic and false equivalence of patriotism and the military.

Here’s Trump, leading this perilous charge :

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“Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” — Sept. 24

The “freedom” celebrated in the flag and on the Fourth of July isn’t merely or especially freedom from foreign domination. It’s political freedom, both the freedoms of limited government associated with the Bill of Rights and the opportunity to be involved in political action. At least, that’s what traditional American freedom has always emphasized.

During the Vietnam War, relations between civilians and the military were toxic. Many protesters didn’t blame just Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon; they actively held ordinary soldiers responsible for choosing to participate in a policy they considered unjust. I’m not talking here about specific charges of war crimes by specific soldiers; all troops were blamed, including those who had been drafted. Of course, many of the protesters were themselves attempting or hoping to avoid the draft — for them it was personal, and it’s understandable that they imagined that the war would end if only everyone made the choice to evade service they had made. But after the fact, a strong consensus built up for a de facto truce: In future wars, everyone would honor the service of the troops even if they protested the policy.

That truce held for years. Even during the nadir of public support for the war in Iraq, almost all Americans supported the troops and held them blameless. That attitude survived even the revelations about Abu Ghraib — which was blamed on the commander-in-chief and military leaders — but not to the troops at large.

Today, the all-volunteer forces filling the ranks of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard enjoy the support of virtually all Americans; polling shows public confidence in the military is far higher than any other institution, public or private, in the nation. At the elite level, too, virtually all politicians and other public figures are united in their support. But that healthy consensus has obscured something important: Military service is only one form of public service. There are many other patriotic acts that are crucial to binding this nation together, even if they don’t carry the same risks to life and limb: everything from participating in a city council hearing and teaching in a public school to going door-to-door for a candidate and, yes, lobbying for a piece of legislation. All of these and many more are forms of serving the nation, and all and more spark real, meaningful patriotism.

I don’t mean to take anything away from military service. At the same time, thinking of the flag or the national anthem are somehow particularly the property of the military is flat-out anti-democratic.

So if you think what Trump was saying — that the flag must be protected because patriots have fought and died for it — is just common sense, I strongly urge you to think again. Especially those who believe that the United States is special (or “exceptional”). What makes it so? Is it that it is defended by patriots? Or is it what those patriots are defending, and other patriots are constantly building and rebuilding, even if most of them aren’t putting their lives at risk?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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