The Flag and the Military

As my first of hopefully many blog entries on the CANZPS website I thought I would start with a few of my initial insights to the world that is the United States from the perspective of a New Zealander. Upon being appointed as the Fulbright Professor of New Zealand Studies for Spring 2011 I began to seriously think about what it would mean to live, breath, taste and feel Washington DC for six months. Big meals, big cars, Starbucks, McDonalds, Basketball and Football, Obama, Republicans and Democrats and guns all quickly sprang to mind. A country that seemed so familiar throughout my upbringing in small town New Zealand suddenly seemed alien, foreign and utterly mystifying. What does it mean to be a US citizen? What does it mean to be a Washingtonian? I realized that whilst still based in New Zealand there was little I could do that would truly assist in gaining the answers to these questions – my cracking of these questions necessitated my presence in the US. 

Having now been in DC for six weeks or so two very strong images have struck me: the Flag and the Military. Even mentioning the Flag and the Military makes me nervous as I have come to realize that both represent something deep seated in the psyche of Americans, something I doubt I will ever fully understand. I even use a capital “F” and “M” just in case I accidently breach some unwritten protocol over how each ought to be addressed resulting in unintended scorn and offence.

Last week, while on one of my regular wonderings around the city, I decided to count the appearance of the United States Flag. I reached 20 within three streets and gave up after reaching the fourth street. It is clear that the Flag represents much more to the American people than the New Zealand flag does to New Zealanders – at least to New Zealanders when they are home, as opposed to our rare and occasional flutter with flag ownership when overseas; i.e. when living in some dingy London flat for two years. The Flag in the United States appears to represent a rallying call for patriotism, and a form of patriotism that I have never experienced in all my travels around the world.

The position of New Zealand as a stable, liberal democracy with a strong economy in the middle of nowhere, having been founded on the basis of a treaty and reluctant English occupation/settlement or cession means that I look at the world completely and utterly different from the average citizen of the United States. The same could be said of English men and women, or Russian, or middle eastern citizens or Pacific Islanders. I am immensely proud of New Zealand but look upon my country as being rather independent in its outlook of the world. That, of course, is a luxurious position to be in, and one that most New Zealanders are able to enjoy safe in the knowledge that we get along with most everyone in the world.  We are largely a threat to no one militarily, only of minimal annoyance to some other states politically, but like to think we are a big player geopolitically in the South Pacific – a belief largely incorrect. This has led me and I suggest many New Zealanders to look at those who “serve” as perhaps not having the ability to get a real job, of being a little odd. In much the same way as I imagine taking up a career in the “Church” in Bronte England of the 18th century was seen to be noble and to represent a higher calling, military service in the United States seems to be viewed my most as coming close to the pinnacle of secular divinity that is patriotic citizenship. Attending a sporting match or any large event in the United States, hearing the national anthem sung, seeing the regular appearance of flags, and the regular call of “Army, Navy, Air Force” and for that to be met with cries of patriotic support is odd, very odd, in fact even a little scary for a kiwi boy who has seen the world but who just doesn’t get it. I don’t know if I will ever truly ‘get it’ but I find the path to understanding what makes the United States tick a fascinating one. In my travels I’m reminded that despite our numerous similarities we are all complicated beasts and are the product of our environment and upbringing to a far greater degree than we often like to acknowledge.

It’s fantastic to be here – even if the way we each are appears to be lost in translation at times.