Wednesday, May 16, 2007

JAG: Is Patriotism Wrong?

Is patriotism wrong? Is patriotism dark? Is it Neanderthal?

If we took a cold, detached look at it, then at first glance it would appear to be completely Neanderthal. The process behind it is the same process that has people rooting for their home teams and curse the other teams’ fans. Had the cursing fan not been born in this city but in another one, he would have cursed this team’s fans with just as much fervor and felt just as justified.

When we grow up, we feel the same towards our country, especially in war time. You root for your own country in a war. In fact, most people (when push comes to shove) would give their lives or their kids’ lives for their country. That is, after all, how a military force is created. Wars are usually against an evil country or an evil enemy (look at your country’s last seven wars, whichever country you come from, and check whether at least six out of seven were not against an evil enemy). But had you been born and brought up in one of the countries you or your parents or your grandparents were fighting, you or they would just as willingly have given your lives and your/their lives for that country, calling your current country evil.

Where is the logic? Where is the reason?

Adding flame to the fire, patriotism in art seems to run contrary to the subject of last week’s post. There I claimed that any good story has a conflict, that a conflict has two sides, and that the better the artist, the better he understands both sides. Supposedly, this puts the artist on the side that sees the enemy (whoever that might be in whatever war one is currently fighting) as equal and, perhaps, just as justified. What, then, of artists that tell stories with a conservative bent, that are pro-us, pro-army and perhaps even pro-war?

Two weeks ago, in a post about patriotism, we also saw that artists who deal with human nature (like actors, writers, and directors) often look at things we know well and ask “What is it? What is it really?” Well, then: What is patriotism? What is it really?

Let’s take JAG as an example. JAG was far from being a masterpiece of any genre, but it was fun and well-done and clearly had a conservative agenda as well as a patriotic one. So let’s ask the question: What is JAG’s patriotism all about? What is it really?

JAG comes from the house of Donald P. Bellisario, producer, creator, director, and writer of many things, most notably: Magnum P.I., Quantum Leap, and JAG. In all three shows, he was the one who wrote the most momentous and important episodes. Not coincidentally, he also wrote the best written ones. These days, he is also responsible for NCIS, but its stories do not come close to the Big Three’s.

In all three shows there is a heavy military bent. Magnum was a Vietnam vet, while the older Higgins, who kept the mansion, turned out to have been an honorable and brave soldier in the British military. Quantum Leap had Al, a Viet vet and prisoner of war, now an admiral. Al was a macho womanizer, but on the bigger issues, he was always a man of honor.

Magnum and Quantum Leap had a system that worked well for Bellisario: the younger man has the adventures, and the older, wiser, slightly ridiculous man was his companion. Bellisario broke that pattern in JAG, when he paired the young, good-looking JAG lawyer (ex-fighter pilot) with a young, good-looking JAG lawyer of the female persuasion. Where before it was manly camaraderie, now we had sexual tension.

Bellisario loves the army, and so do his characters. They love the army, love war stories, love heroism, and yet they are scarred by them. His heroes would sacrifice everything for what their country tells them to do. Magnum, for example, had to give up the woman he loved. JAG’s Harmon Rabb was haunted by his father’s disappearance during Vietnam after having been shot down. Harm was the only one who still thought his father might be alive somewhere.

This trauma shaped Harm’s life. In fact, the father complex appears again and again in Belissario’s stories. Harm chose his father’s profession (fighter pilot) even though it had led to the father's death and/or horrible life as an MIA, while the wife was left widowed and the son orphaned. In one episode, Harm’s fighter friend dies. When he comes to console the family (and to investigate the incident), the widow wants Harm to be kept away from her child. Already, the boy wants to be like his father. In fact, his father’s death only makes him want it more.

Wanting to be a soldier is an honorable thing in Bellisario’s world, and this is the only time I recall the choice was even questioned. And even then, the problem had at least two sides, both with merit.

Where Magnum was also a con-man, and Al was a relentless womanizer, Harmon Rabb was faultless. He was everything you imagine a hero to be. He always made the right choice, never faltered, was completely patriotic, followed his orders even when he disagreed with them. And yet...

Harm was a patriot and followed orders. At the same time, he was a hunter, and he hunted after the truth. When truth rarely happened to crash against his orders or his superiors, he opted for truth. Sometimes his superiors were corrupt. Sometimes they even sacrificed soldiers for their own petty purposes. When that happened, Harm flushed out the truth and restored honor to the U.S. Harm so loved. Truth roots out corruption. Truth, to Harm, is patriotism.

Truth, to Harm, is honorable as well. Being a soldier is an honorable thing. It is honorable to fight for one’s country. It is honorable to die for one’s country, even if the cause is not always clear. But honor - and the honor of being a soldier - transcends borders. Having honor has nothing to do with a country of origin, and honorable soldiers recognize honorable soldiers on the other side and salute them (sometimes before drawing guns on them).

In Bellisario’s world, real patriotism is honor and truth (values that are without borders).

Patriotism has its limits; honor and truth do not.


Anonymous said...

Interesting take on patriotism... I like this as a definition of true patriotism vs. phony, knee jerk patriotism that so many people seem to display.

Unknown said...

Compelling analysis. Some notes:

If you haven't yet, read "Imagined Communities" by Benedict Anderson.

Harmon Rabb is in the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Army rarely gets direct attention on the show.