My Country. A romantic and cynical meditation.

Army, Chaplaincy
I SUPPOSE that very few casual readers of the “New York Herald” of August 13, 1863, observed, in an obscure corner, among the “Deaths,” the announcement,—

         “NOLAN. Died, on board U. S. Corvette ‘Levant,’ Lat. 2°
  11′ S., Long. 131° W., on the 11th of May, PHILIP NOLAN.”

 

I had not read those words since high school. I did a monologue for state dramatic competition that year based on “The Man Without a Country” by Edward Evert Hale. It opens with those lines. I bought a book today of Classic American Short Stories not knowing this was part of the collection. It’s been over 15 years.

My dad wrote it. I remember listening to a reading of it by someone who would have been very comfortable reading the news on NPR. I wanted to perform it with more passion. I yelled alot. That’s how I tended to communicate passion, I talked faster and got louder.

In retrospect, it’s a wonder no one ever walked out laughing hysterically or trying to clear their heads of the headache inducing noise. Instead, they listened, politely. Some even confessed to being “moved.”

The story is of an American Officer who gets involved with Aaron Burr’s attempted overthrow of the US Government. Young Philip Nolan is enamored with Burr and bored by garrison life (much like many young officers I meet). He gets involved with the scheme and is caught. At the Court Martial, he curses the United States.

The courts dragged on. The big flies escaped,—rightly for all I know. Nolan was proved guilty enough, as I say; yet you and I would never have heard of him, reader, but that, when the president of the court asked him at the close whether he wished to say anything to show that he had always been faithful to the United States, he cried out, in a fit of frenzy,—    6
  “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”    7
  I suppose he did not know how the words shocked old Colonel Morgan, who was holding the court. Half the officers who sat in it had served through the Revolution, and their lives, not to say their necks, had been risked for the very idea which he so cavalierly cursed in his madness.

I love that passage. Must be because I now have sat in those proceedings. I’ve watched group think happen. I’ve watched old men bemused by young impulsivity. I’m even becoming a bit curmudgeonly judgmental myself.

A life at sea. Without news of home. Without even a word of home. Without identity. Without belonging. A man without a country.

As a teenager the story was moving if not understood. How could I? I was a teenager. I hadn’t really been out of the state of Michigan. How could I understand the gravity?

Nolan goes to sea. He’s haughty. Arrogant. Full of himself. Wrongly imprisoned by a government he refuses to recognize, he takes his punishment in stride. He moves from ship to ship, never going in sight of land, ever the guest of the Captain, never hearing of the United States, never reading of it in censored papers. It begins to wear at him. Then this happens:

So Nolan was permitted to join the circle one afternoon when a lot of them sat on deck smoking and reading aloud. People do not do such things so often now; but when I was young we got rid of a great deal of time so. Well, so it happened that in his turn Nolan took the book and read to the others; and he read very well, as I know. Nobody in the circle knew a line of the poem, only it was all magic and Border chivalry, and was ten thousand years ago. Poor Nolan read steadily through the fifth canto, stopped a minute and drank something, and then began, without a thought of what was coming,—

         “Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
  Who never to himself hath said,”—
  23
  It seems impossible to us that anybody ever heard this for the first time; but all these fellows did then, and poor Nolan himself went on, still unconsciously or mechanically,—

         “This is my own, my native land!”
  24
  Then they all saw something was to pay; but he expected to get through, I suppose, turned a little pale, but plunged on,—

         “Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
  As home his footsteps he hath turned
    From wandering on a foreign strand?—
  If such there breathe, go, mark him well,”—
  25
  By this time the men were all beside themselves, wishing there was any way to make him turn over two pages; but he had not quite presence of mind for that; he gagged a little, colored crimson, and staggered on,—

         “For him no minstrel raptures swell;
  High though his titles, proud his name,
  Boundless his wealth as wish can claim,
  Despite these titles, power, and pelf,
  The wretch, concentred all in self,”—

and here the poor fellow choked, could not go on, but started up, swung the book into the sea, vanished into his state-room, “And by Jove,” said Phillips, “we did not see him for two months again. And I had to make up some beggarly story to that English surgeon why I did not return his Walter Scott to him.”

 

A man with soul so dead… mark him well…

Maybe its because I’ve been an Army Officer for 8 years now. Maybe its the fact that I am pastor to hundreds of men who themselves have been imprisoned by their government for their actions, maybe its that I’m a father. I was reading it tonight at the “soft play” area at the mall. Kids are tearing around each other running up and down the plastic frogs and leaves. I am choking up. I look up at the children and swallow some tears. What kind of torture would it be to never hear of home? To never know the love of family? To lose the absurd and glorious identity in one’s tribe? My country?

Nolan gives a speech after the ship he is on rescues some slaves. He is speaking to a midshipman.

  But he could not stand it long; and getting Vaughan to say he might go back, he beckoned me down into our boat. As we lay back in the stern-sheets and the men gave way, he said to me: “Youngster, let that show you what it is to be without a family, without a home, and without a country. And if you are ever tempted to say a word or to do a thing that shall put a bar between you and your family, your home, and your country, pray God in his mercy to take you that instant home to his own heaven. Stick by your family, boy; forget you have a self, while you do everything for them. Think of your home, boy; write and send, and talk about it. Let it be nearer and nearer to your thought, the farther you have to travel from it; and rush back to it when you are free, as that poor black slave is doing now. And for your country, boy,” and the words rattled in his throat, “and for that flag,” and he pointed to the ship, “never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you, though the service carry you through a thousand hells. No matter what happens to you, no more matter who flatters you or who abuses you, never look at another flag, never let a night pass but you pray God to bless that flag. Remember, boy, that behind all these men you have to do with, behind officers, and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to Her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by Her, boy, as you would stand by your mother, if those devils there had got hold of her to-day!”

 

The Country Herself. Your Country.

Perhaps it is because I wear the flag on my shoulder every day. Perhaps it is because I am so familiar with war and the Army. Perhaps it is because I grew up as the son of a preacher and thus have a precondition towards a bit of cynicism.

I’ve always felt a little ambivalent towards patriotism. I avoid overly romantic ideas of country, home, and hearth. If I have to listen to “American Soldier” one more time… It’s just that I’ve heard it SO MANY TIMES already!!! I see the holes in the arguments. I know too well my own flaws and the flaws of those I serve with. I know intimately the darkest side of those casually and without nuance are oft called heroes. It is difficult to not grow cynical.

But then there is this – beyond DC, beyond generals, beyond policy, memorandums, Operations Orders, rank structures, toxic leaders and egos – there is the Country Herself, my Country and I belong to her as I belong to my own mother. It’s true. I will not deny it.

Why do I serve?

Is it for the pension? Tricare? Ego trip? Maybe. Those are certainly part of it. But that’s not why I stay long hours in the prison. It’s not why I give up my weekends and evenings to provide programs and counseling. It’s not what keeps me working with Soldiers who want to give up on life. It’s not what drives me to organize yet another relationship building event. It’s not what gets me up in the morning for another pavement pounding 4 mile run. (Ok, maybe that). It certainly does not give me comfort when my kids miss me and I need to go into work to take care of a former Soldier, now prisoner or another Joe.

No. That does not cut it.

It is the joy of duty. The joy of belonging. It is the call of my Country.

I belong to her.
Epilogue:
Read the whole story. Read how he dies. Read about what Nolan wants on his deathbed. See if it does not move you. The last line of the story is what Nolan wanted on his tombstone:

“On this slip of paper he had written:
    “‘Bury me in the sea; it has been my home, and I love it. But will not some one set up a stone for my memory at Fort Adams or at Orleans, that my disgrace may not be more than I ought to bear? Say on it:—
 
‘In Memory of
 
PHILIP NOLAN,
 
Lieutenant in the Army of the United States.
 
  • HE LOVED HIS COUNTRY AS NO OTHER MAN HAS LOVED HER; BUT NO MAN DESERVED LESS AT HER HANDS.’”