Commentary: ‘Love it or leave it’ notion smacks of ‘false patriotism’

We all have events in life that change its trajectory. For me, a major one was the Vietnam War. In the late 1960s, I was about to graduate from college and, simultaneously, lose my draft deferment. The U.S. had a draft that was used to get enough men into the service as the war ramped up. My friends and I watched anxiously as draft numbers were picked based on birthdays. If your birthday was one of the first picked, you were sure to be drafted.

I opposed the war. I believed President Nixon was lying to us about the war. I protested when it became clear that, despite presidential denials, we were waging secret wars in Laos and Cambodia in addition to Vietnam. Though not at war, the U.S. was dropping 84 tons of explosives per person on Laos. I was told to love the U.S. or leave.

I protested when we learned about the My Lai massacre. Five hundred unarmed villagers, old men, women and children, were killed by U.S. soldiers. Girls were raped and mutilated. The Army covered it up. I was told to love the U.S. or leave. I protested when four unarmed students were shot and killed at an Ohio College. The students were protesting Cambodia bombing. I was told to stop protesting and love the U.S. or leave.

My friends and I had a decision to make. Serve? Refuse? Join the National Guard (who were not expected to be deployed)? Leave the country? It didn’t help when we watched the wealthy and connected dodge the draft. However, I decided that, if drafted, I would serve. This was not out of patriotism; I thought the war was wrong. My decision was based on obligation. There was nowhere else on Earth I wanted to live, and the price of living here was serving. That didn’t mean I would stop protesting.

I passed my draft physical despite leg and ankle damage from a motorcycle accident. I needed a job, but the first question employers asked was my draft status. Then they said to come back when the draft was over. In the end, I wasn’t drafted. The draft stopped at number 195. I was 207. Some of my family and friends were not so lucky. I didn’t go to Vietnam, but my life was changed by it.

I learned some things from Vietnam. I learned that “love it or leave it” is a false standard spread by false patriots. I learned the importance of protesting when things are wrong. Protests helped end the war. I thought this was a lesson my entire generation learned.

Today, I find myself and the country in an eerily similar situation. I supported Colin Kapernick taking a knee to protest racism. I support Megan Rapinoe when she protests by not singing the national anthem. Our president, who is comfortable lying to the American people, is telling us that they and four freshmen congresswomen who are critical of the U.S. (and Trump) should get out. It’s the same false patriotism we heard during the Vietnam War. From the media coverage of his vocal followers, it seems we have forgotten the lessons of Vietnam.

We are bombarded daily by political leaders and media who want us to hate each other. We’re invited to hate because of political party, ancestry, skin color, length of time in this country and on and on. Today’s vehicle for hatred is the president’s “love it or leave it” false patriotism. Tomorrow it will something else. Who gains from these hate campaigns? Perhaps those who try to use it to get elected and those who can sell advertising time with it. I don’t believe that we, the people, gain from it.

I don’t think most people believe the U.S. is perfect. We all have strong opinions about how the U.S. could improve. Health care, immigration, gun violence, abortion and racism are just a few hot button issues. We are not going to agree on these, but we can agree that we each have a right to express our opinions and argue our positions. And perhaps we can agree, as the Constitution states, that we each have the right to protest, peacefully, when we believe the country is going in the wrong direction.

Phil Spampinato is a resident of Dover.

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