Friday, July 4, 2008

Collective Forgetfulness and Civic Duty

"And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!"

- The Star Spangled Banner - Francis Scott Keys (1)

Over the next several days, just about every American will hear the notes of an old familiar song. As is custom, we will remove our hats and show tribute to our country. Nearly every city in America will see our skies erupt in colorful flames to commemorate our country and everything it stands for.

But before we break out the grills and celebrate Keys' celebration of American solidarity over explosive odds, I thought it would be interesting to dig into some of the verses we rarely hear. After a small amount of research I discovered (Egad!) several verses of our national anthem with which I was unfamiliar. Keys originally wrote four verses to his song, and the verses less traveled form a darker and more painful version of America that is (unfortunately) heard less often.

This discovery got me to thinking. It's easy for us as Americans to stand tall and proud to Keys' first verse of solidarity. I can see why we perform one verse but not the others. It's easier to be a patriot when the verses we utter have no human references. Bombs bursting in air over a tirelessly beautiful flag is a romantic image. References to "the havoc of war" and "the gloom of the grave" are far less romantic. Yet regardless of romanticism and patriotism, these verses still exist. They describe a very real war and very real American deaths. We can let these verses slip out of the American consciousness if we so desire, but people still died in the name of this country and there is nothing we can do to erase history.

It is with this concept in mind that my mind drifts towards America today. In March of this year, the total deaths of U.S. Soldiers in Iraq passed 4000. (2) The numbers are eerily similar to the number of U.S. deaths in Vietnam during the escalation period starting in 1965. (3) Also similar are the numbers of civilian deaths for the two wars.

These are dark numbers, and if a songwriter were writing an anthem for today, it wouldn't surprise me to see them put in the third forgotten verse. The American people aren't the only ones glossing over these numbers. When told by John Hopkins University that government estimates of civilian deaths are vastly under reported, Bush responded by saying, "Six-hundred thousand or whatever they guessed at is just... it's not credible." (4) It's scary when our president is not only in denial about foreign policy, but also about the amount of deaths that his policies have been directly responsible for.

It doesn't surprise me that Bush is in denial over these numbers, but unfortunately the American people follow his lead of denial. This isn't necessarily the fault of the American people, keep in mind that the number of media outlets has compressed into a frightening eight member fraternity. (5) With most radio, television, and other media outlets controlled privately by a select few, its becoming harder and harder for journalists to present the facts over the prescribed policy. Check out the stories of Geraldo Rivera, Peter Arnett, Steve Wilson, or Jane Akre. All were fired or reprimanded for presenting the news without being in accordance with the policy of their privately owned corporations. (6)

I once knew a pastor from Nebraska named Kurt Lehmann. He was the father of the pastor I grew up with, and I have an extraordinary amount of respect for the man. He's since passed on to greener pastures, but one of the things he said has stuck with me. He firmly believed that it is our responsibility as humans to address problems if we are aware of them. Being aware of a problem and not taking action would go against our responsibility as Christians.

I think this concept doesn't just apply to those who subscribe to the teachings of Jesus Christ. There are problems in American today. There are scary things going on, and the proverbial wolves have taken this country by force. Being in denial of the darker verses of this countries story is a natural human inclination, but it is one we should resist. It is our responsibility as Americans to take back our country and send the wolves packing. We have no excuse. The information is out there. The wolves are sneaky, but they have left a trail. We cannot afford to be in denial any longer.

Dan Choma is a bassist, drummer, pianist, and composer. He plays with Junkyard Empire and Five Apple High in the Minneapolis Saint Paul area. He can be reached for comment at



No comments: