OK, here’s the pitch: A remake of Gary Cooper’s 1941 Sergeant York. In the new version, York’s this Tennessee farmer who refuses to fight in World War I because of his religious convictions, see? Then some of the kaiser’s commandos on a secret mission in the South molest his nephews and nieces and burn down his church. Now it’s personal. Cut to Sgt. York kick-boxing the kaiser and a couple of field marshals …
Such a Hollywood mutilation of the Sgt. York story couldn’t be any sillier than Roland Emmerich’s and Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War movie, The Patriot. Let’s pass over the historical howlers—black slaves are “employees,” only one person in the entire South has a Southern accent, the British burn churches as though they were Nazis burning synagogues—and concentrate on the key point: This movie is deeply subversive of patriotism. Indeed, patriotism is a concept that neither the screenwriter (Robert Rodat, who wrote Saving Private Ryan) nor the director (Emmerich, Godzilla and Independence Day) seems to understand.
Modeled loosely on American guerrilla leader Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin is a South Carolina planter, a widower, and a famous soldier traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam—oops, I mean the French and Indian War. He sits out the American Revolution, until a sadistic Nazi—oops, I mean British commander—kills one of his sons, whereupon he spends the next two days—oops, I mean two hours—avenging himself.
The plot of The Patriot is more or less the same as that of a much better movie, Gladiator. If the story lines of these two films are based on a good sense of the market, then it appears that today’s audiences can’t imagine any cause that could justify political violence other than injury to a child or wife (your own, not your neighbor’s—that’s their problem). Even the parochial patriotism of colonial elites is incomprehensible to today’s audiences, to judge by their silent reaction when Gibson’s Benjamin Martin tells his fellow South Carolina gentlemen that unfortunately his duties as a house-husband prevent him from taking part in the War of Independence (in the showing I attended, only one person laughed).
The message of The Patriot is that country is an abstraction, family is everything. It should have been called The Family Man.
The same message is found in The Godfather movies, and it is no coincidence that the late Edward Banfield, an eminent sociologist, used the Sicily from which the Corleones came to illustrate the primitive ethic of “amoral familism.”
A morality in which your duties do not extend beyond your clan is the oldest and most universal human ethic. The rivals of amoral familism have been universal religion and patriotism. Patriotism has come in two kinds: city-state or provincial patriotism, which dates back to antiquity, and national patriotism, a phenomenon of the past two or three hundred years. Until the development of modern systems of communication, transport, and public education, it was never possible to establish patriotism on a scale larger than that of the city-state. When an empire founded by a city-state became a monarchy, as the Roman Empire did, citizenship could be extended, but loyalty seldom was. Emperor-worship and the personal loyalty of soldiers to their commanders held the Roman Empire together, not any sense of imperial patriotism (which, plausibly, is lacking in Gladiator).
The difference between pre-patriotic ethics and patriotism is clear in Greek and Roman epics. In Homer’s Iliad, the great warrior Achilles, denied a slave girl as a prize, goes off to sulk in a tent while the rest of the Greeks suffer military disaster at the hands of the Trojans. Virgil’s Aeneid evokes the Homeric epics in many ways, but the Trojan warrior Aeneas is a dutiful soldier who sacrifices his love life (with Dido) in order to carry out his historic mission of founding Rome. He is allowed to exact revenge on his enemy—but only after his civic mission has been fulfilled.
For the American Founding Fathers, as for the French revolutionaries, the Roman republic provided better examples of patriotic duty than did the Greek city-states. The patriotic decision of Socrates not to flee Athens but to accept the unjust death penalty imposed on him was unusual; philosophers like Aristotle and politicians like Alcibiades were more likely to move to another city or royal court in Greece or even the Persian Empire, often switching sides several times (Aristotle, fleeing persecution in Athens for the court of Philip of Macedon, where he tutored the not-yet-great Alexander, quipped that he did not want Athens to sin twice against philosophy).
Roman patriotism by contrast was exclusive and severe. The need to sacrifice family loyalty to civic duty, in cases of conflict, is a recurrent theme in Roman literature. One of the founders of the Roman republic, Brutus (not the one who generations later killed Caesar), is said to have ordered the execution of his sons when they plotted against the republic. Another famous story, retold by Livy, described how a consul with the appropriate name of Manlius Torquatus ordered his son Titus Manlius not to attack the enemy. When an enemy soldier dissed him, the young man killed him and returned to camp to brag about his personal victory. In today’s Hollywood, the father, played by Mel Gibson, would pat his son on the back: “Like father, like son!” According to Livy, however, Manlius Torquatus said: “Titus Manlius, you have respected neither consular imperium nor your father’s maiestas, you have left your position to fight the enemy in defiance of my order, and, as far as was in your power, have subverted [military discipline], on which the fortune of Rome has rested up to this day. … I believe that you yourself, if you have a drop of my blood in you, would agree that the military discipline, which you undermined by your error, must be restored by your punishment.” Whereupon the father had the son beheaded in front of the troops.
This kind of rigor was the exception, not the rule. During the millenniums in which the only republics were city-states, civic patriotism was constantly in danger of giving way to family feuds. (Thus the plot of Romeo and Juliet.) Persuading people to think of themselves not as members of the Alcmeonid clan or the Capulets, but as citizens of Athens or Verona was uphill work, but it was nothing compared to the problem of trying to transfer loyalties to immense and diverse nation-states. The American Civil War could be seen as a conflict between the old local patriotism that put South Carolina or Georgia first and a national patriotism that was then relatively new.
Is it obsolete today? If The Patriot really does evoke the Zeitgeist in the United States in A.D. 2000, then American national patriotism is giving way not to a resurgence of Confederate-style local patriotism (something that is unlikely to happen, given the geographic mobility of Americans), but rather to the perennial rival of patriotism at all levels: amoral familism. A few years ago, Edward Luttwak suggested that the wealthy, aging nations of North America and Western Europe are “post-heroic” societies. Because most couples have only one or two children, the loss of any in warfare becomes intolerable, and conscription becomes unthinkable. If Luttwak is right, then child-centered Americans (and Europeans and Japanese) will be forced to rely in the future on allies, mercenaries, and maybe robots to fight on their behalf.
Unless, of course, the enemy should be foolish enough to mess with their kids on their property, as in The Patriot. Then, by God, it’s personal.