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Homeland America

In a new book, Dale Maharidge travels across the country with photographer Michael Williamson, the two of them seeking to capture this American moment in prose and images.
 
 
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Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from ' Homeland' by Dale Maharidge with photographs by Michael Williamson (Seven Stories Press).

My father's cremated remains lay beneath an American flag held by four soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, a year after 9/11. Seven other soldiers each fired rifles three times. Steve Maharidge gets twenty-one shots and a hole in the ground here because they gave him a Purple Heart after he was wounded in the bloody South Pacific island fighting. He got a piece of Japanese steel in his back that they never could get out, and it was there somewhere amongst the ashes.

Dad never talked much about the war. After he died, I sought out and found guys from his unit, L Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division. George Popovich told me about the night on Guam, July 25, 1944, when he and Dad were in a trench on the Orote Peninsula battling the Japanese just feet away. A mortar round or a grenade blew behind my father, killing the two men on either side of him, spraying shrapnel into his back. Come morning, there were fifteen dead Americans in the trench, two alive – Dad, wounded, and George.

The injury was no ticket home. They patched Dad up and on April 1, 1945, he and 239 other men hit the Okinawa beach. The unit was among those that took Naha, the first and only Japanese city captured in the war before the atom bombs were dropped. According to information from the government, only thirty-one of the 240 came off the island alive.

It was near the end of the "good war." In the Okinawa campaign, the northern portion of the island was quickly taken – the prize being the Yontan Airfield, to use in launching attacks against Japan. There was political pressure to crush the Japanese, and so my father and thousands of other U.S. soldiers were ordered to march south. Among the many critics of this campaign was General Douglas MacArthur. He argued that the Japanese 32nd Army, dug in on the southern third of the island above the city of Naha, could not meaningfully threaten U.S. troops. MacArthur said a frontal attack would be "sacrificing thousands of American solders."

He advocated starving the Japanese out, rather than press a head-on assault against the formidable Shuri Line, culminating at Sugar Loaf Hill. With ship and air support cut off, the Japanese would weaken as the weeks wore on. MacArthur was ignored, and the bloodiest days of the Pacific war were to come as the Americans taught the Japanese a lesson.

In the end, 12,281 Americans were killed in the entire campaign, and well over 200,000 Japanese and Okinawans.

I once asked Dad about attending veterans' events – why didn't he go to parades and so forth?

"Fuck that!" he said. "There are no heroes. Just survivors." A pause, a vacant look, not at me or anything in the room. Then looking me right in the eye, quietly: "You just survive."

Dad never owned an American flag. Never flew one.

Weeks after burying Dad, I spent Thanksgiving in Chicago, at the home of Dick and Nancy Cusack. Dick had also been in the war. We talked about it, how that war affected his generation. Some guys were like my Dad, who came home and stayed drunk for four years. Dad coped in a Hemingwayesque manner – in an eternal quest to forget. Others were like Philip Berrigan, Dick's roommate when they were at College of the Holy Cross, and who that fall of 2002 lay on his deathbed halfway across the country.

Dick recalled how World War II affected Phil. Berrigan and my dad may both have been sickened by combat. But Berrigan was no Hemingway. Phil became a Roman Catholic priest, a pacifist, who grew increasingly active against what he saw as "the American empire." Dick talked about the time during the Vietnam War when the FBI went after him and Nancy, accusing them of helping Berrigan and his brother, Dan, who were then fugitives from the FBI after the brothers broke into draft offices and destroyed records, sometimes by pouring blood on them.

Conversation turned to the present. I'd been told by my mother and others that during World War II, one didn't see American flags flying all over the place as one does today. Dick confirmed this. One saw service stars in the windows of homes of men who were in the war, he said. There were flags, but not the flagfest one now witnessed. For sure, there was plenty of patriotism and nationalism, as well as racism (against Japanese Americans) in World War II. But something was different now.

I asked why there were not as many flags in a war in which we lost some 400,000 servicemen, the combined death total from combat and other causes.

"Because it's fake," Dick rapidly replied, speaking of the supposed unity the flags represent in Homeland America.


Photo from Homeland
Polling place, Suttle, Alabama.

In 2002, Americans purchased 100 million U.S. flags, compared with 40 million in 2000, according to the National Flag Foundation. There were no sales figures specific to September through December of 2001, a spokesman told me. Anecdotally, however, many stores were sold out of flags in those months.

That winter, I carefully watched the flags, trying to discern all they might mean, looking for regional patterns as I drove around America. I preferred back roads. A heavy flag belt stretched on into Chicago. But once I left there and traveled the two-lane roads of downstate Illinois and beyond, there was a noticeable drop. Miles of travel, no flags.

These were white areas. Then, in western Oklahoma, suddenly there were many flags in two small towns. It was puzzling. Then I sighted Mexican restaurants and stores. Probably there was a meatpacking plant nearby. The flags may have been flown by Mexicans, for immigrants are often superpatriots. But most flags were on large homes, unlikely to be owned by newcomers. Were they flown by fearful whites living among a large immigrant population, eager to show that this is America, in the face of the only outsiders they could see?

Passing through Oklahoma City, I stopped at the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, blown up in 1995. American flags were everywhere around the memorial to the dead. The same flag Timothy McVeigh thought he was fighting for, in the Gulf War, and later at home, when he drove the explosives-filled Ryder truck to the site.

Many raise the flag to show support for military action and America on the march. To others, the flag represents our community sense, America banding together. In Chicago, I saw Muslims wearing flag buttons, flying flags on their businesses. In the Chicago Ridge Mall, a Muslim man wore a flag shirt, with the letters USA! shouting down the arm. Perhaps for this man, walking with a woman in a hijab, a flag shirt was the only defense against being attacked.

The German flag was deified by rightists in Weimar Germany, the nation that emerged from the ashes of World War I. One reason is that it exhibited unity to a country that was really very young and not yet fully formed – the unification of Germany had only happened five decades before the start of Weimar. While we are over four times the age, in the scheme of world history, the United States is also still very young – in some ways younger than the Germany that followed the Treaty of Versailles. We are a teenager, as societies go. With the arrival of each new immigrant wave, we're a nation constantly being redefined.

Some have long wanted to deify the U.S. flag. For years Republicans, including John Ashcroft when he was a U.S. Senator, have tried to amend the constitution to make desecrating a flag illegal. Oddly, at the same time the flag is idolized, I find it imprinted on my plastic garbage bag, or in the newspaper that I am expected to discard. I've seen politicians wiping their mouths with flag-embossed paper napkins. We have flag shirts, hats, pants, and even underwear worn by "patriots." I've seen flag condoms for sale in the men's rooms of redneck bars.

As 2002 progressed, the flag increasingly was used as a statement of peace against blind patriotism. This sometimes invited stompings by citizens who had differing views on patriotism, at other times the threat of arrest by police.

One of these incidents occurred on September 26, 2002, when two police officers went to the dormitory occupied by students John Bohman and Juan Diaz at Grinnell College in Iowa. They had a U.S. flag hanging upside down in their window. The students had used the international distress signal to signify their protest of U.S. foreign policy. The officers ordered them to remove the flag, or face arrest. They complied, but later went to the Iowa Civil Liberties Union.

In December, a First Amendment lawsuit was filed by the ICLU on behalf of the men. The suit asked the federal court to nullify Iowa's flag law, which declares it illegal to "publicly mutilate, deface, defile or defy, trample upon, cast contempt upon, satirize, deride or burlesque" a U.S. flag.

John, nineteen, was a soft-spoken and deep-thinking young man. A lot of reporters wanted to make him out as radical. This bothered him. He felt his had been a rather minimalist statement.

"It was a pretty dire situation at that time. The vote on Iraq was coming up. You had to do something. I was hoping people would stop and ask why we would do such a thing. I felt the very values the flag stood for were in distress. It's really interesting how it's become a symbol of conservatism."

This answer came fast. Then a long silence.

"There's a growing sense that it's us against the world," he finally said. "I was talking with a friend about Rome the other day. There are a lot of similarities. An overreaching empire. A focus on the coliseum-sports. Maybe we are making the same mistake. When people get riled up with nationalism, they have blind faith. That's really scary."

"Nationalism" kept echoing in comments similar to John's as I traveled the country.


Photo from Homeland
Toy for sale, Times Square, New York City.

In the past century and a half, U.S. nationalism has crested over a half dozen times: the 1848 Mexican-American War, in which the United States annexed Texas and California and much of the rest of the West; the Spanish-American War; both World Wars I and II; the McCarthy period; the Vietnam War; and now the post-9/11 era. The Spanish-American War was most pivotal. It was America's first real projection as a nation with ambitions beyond the North American continent, and it influenced later periods of war and nationalism, including post-9/11 America.

There had been a policy of not being expansionist since the administration of Ulysses Grant. The majority opinion favored "continentalism," that the U.S. not expand beyond North America. The notion of Manifest Destiny had existed since the 1840s, but on the eve of the war with Spain, it had merged with the natural selection theories of Charles Darwin. Some academics and theologians twisted Darwin to fit their desires to see the United States become an imperial power, because the country was "naturally fit" to do so.

American evangelicals, under the organization the U.S. Evangelical Alliance, saw themselves naturally selected to spread faith and dominate brown people. In 1885, the group's leader, Josiah Strong, published Our Country , a best-selling book that sold 185,000 copies. This book posited that the white man was "divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother's keeper." America was destined to rule the world, and Strong saw the country moving "down upon Mexico . . . out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond."

Others had mercantile desires – money could be made through empire. For Theodore Roosevelt, however, the motive was not religion or markets, but simple expansion. He watched European powers moving into the Middle East and Africa. Roosevelt had his eye on Hawaii, which he feared Japan would seize.

A little less than a year before the war with Spain, Roosevelt (a Harvard graduate who had then never seen combat) gave a speech at the Naval War College, in which he said, "All the great masterful races have been fighting races ... cowardice in a race, as in an individual, is the unpardonable sin."

The Spanish had been awful in their administration of Cuba, and a civil war had erupted there in 1895. Some Americans immediately wanted to get involved. But most businessmen were not part of the push, for they feared that the recovery from the 1894 Depression, in full swing by 1897, would be cut short by war. It was the Darwin-minded expansionist elites, led by Roosevelt, who wanted war, and they were aided by the yellow press.

Roosevelt, then assistant Navy secretary, worked feverishly behind the scenes in the William McKinley administration to push the war with Spain. McKinley, who had vivid memories of the horrors of the Civil War, was opposed. But then an act of supposed terrorism – the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor – gave interventionists an excuse, for they called it an act of war by Spain. It later proved to be an accident caused by an exploding boiler, due to a coal-bunker fire.

There was outspoken dissent by the likes of Mark Twain. But after the Maine, there was no stopping war. Victory would net for the United States the colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Business leaders saw the Philippines as vital to trade in Asia.

"The Philippines are ours forever," said U.S. Senator Albert Beveridge of Indiana. "And just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either . . . the power that rules the Pacific is the power that rules the world. That power will forever be the American Republic."

America had crossed a threshold. By the eve of World War I, the nation was a player on the world stage. But some Americans of German and Irish descent were against fighting on the side of the Allies. And pacifists viewed it as a European problem, one of international bankers and the Old World aristocracy. In the face of this, President Woodrow Wilson romanticized the war to sell it to the public, calling it a "crusade."

Because many immigrants were opposed to the war and immigration was at an all-time high, many longtime Americans feared the newcomers as war approached. But it wasn't just a natural-forming hate that arose: Wilson stoked it. In private, Wilson admitted his fears of riling nationalism, but felt it was necessary to get the nation behind the war. He was cynical. "Lead this people into war," Wilson said, "and they'll forget there even was such a thing as tolerance."

The Committee on Public Information, a propaganda agency run by journalist George Creel, was created by Wilson one week after the declaration of war. The CPI's job was to convince the public that America was fighting for freedom. It promulgated these notions: All Germans were evil "Huns," there were spies among immigrants, anyone asking questions was secretly helping the enemy, pacifists admired the "Huns," and unionizing was treason.

In 1917, Wilson signed the Espionage Act, which assigned severe penalties for anyone interfering with the war, including those accused of fomenting disloyalty. The Sedition Act of 1918 went further, outlawing anything "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive" about the United States, the flag, the constitution, or even the military uniform.

These acts led to more than one thousand convictions. Few of the convicted were actual traitors. Most were union organizers and pacifists. For example, some one hundred members of the Industrial Workers of the World in Chicago were found guilty of being against the war, when they were simply unionizers. For being in favor of resisting the draft, Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to twenty years.

With the CPI's encouragement, American super patriots watched "enemy aliens." In some places, roving bands of patriotic thugs made immigrants sign liberty bond pledges, or harassed immigrants who didn't fly flags, in some cases forcing people to kneel and kiss the flag.

The nationalism on the eve of the Iraq War followed long-standing historical patterns. It happened in Germany on the eve of the World War II, and it happened in Argentina and the Balkans decades later – dissenters were scorned, pilloried, and marginalized as their nations spiraled down shadowy trails to self-destructive wars. Except now, we had entered a period the world had never seen before. The United States of America was the sole superpower, with an array of high-tech weapons that gave it an ability to wage war unchecked. In 1898, there were other powers to challenge America in a head-on military battle, and that continued until the fall of the Soviet Union.

While I would hear ordinary Americans sometimes using the word "nationalism," it was not a word that appeared in print or in public utterances in any mainstream setting. Yet print and broadcast news would freely use it to refer to the actions of other nations, such as China wanting to control its currency, to European nations wanting to keep out genetically modified crops. Everyone was nationalistic – except us. We were simply patriotic.