NEW YORK – It was an extraordinary spectacle: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a US military officer in full dress uniform decorated with a Purple Heart, testifying in the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings on November 19. Knowing that his testimony might well wreck his military career, Vindman believed it was his duty to express his concerns about President Donald Trump’s alleged attempt to undermine US national interests for his own political gain.
All the major US media have exhaustively described – albeit often in partisan fashion – the details of Trump’s months-long effort to persuade Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce a criminal investigation into his political rival Joseph Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter, and that effort’s effect on US policy in the region. What was extraordinary about Vindman’s testimony were the reactions to his expression of patriotism. “As a young man,” he told the committee, “I decided that I wanted to spend my life serving this nation that gave my family refuge from authoritarian oppression. For the last 20 years it has been an honor to represent and protect this great country.”
This should have made Vindman a Republican poster boy, given the party’s routine invocation of love of country and encomiums to military valor. He still has shrapnel in his body from his combat tours in Iraq. Yet it was the Republicans who insulted him by casting doubt on his loyalty. Vindman was born in Ukraine to Jewish parents, and moved to the US with his father and brothers when he was just three years old. But the Republican counsel insinuated that he might feel a particular loyalty to Ukraine. Vindman even had to correct the ranking member of the committee, the Republican Devin Nunes, for failing to address him by his rank, and Fox News broadcast cynical insinuations that he was a double agent.
It fell to the Democrats to thank Vindman for his service to the country and the sacrifices he made. The reasons for these profound differences in rhetoric toward a military officer with an impeccable service record were of course political. The Republicans were trying to protect Trump from allegations of impeachable misconduct, and Vindman was undermining those efforts by affirming the allegations.
Despite Republican efforts to cast suspicion on Vindman’s national loyalty – a common line of attack against Jews – his patriotism appears to be beyond doubt. He reminded me of my maternal grandfather, a British patriot born in London of German Jewish immigrants. Although not a professional soldier, Bernard Schlesinger volunteered for army service for the first time in 1915, when he was still a schoolboy, and finally perhaps as late as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when he had to be told politely that he had shown sufficient loyalty to Queen and country.
The point of my grandfather’s patriotic fervor was not just that, as the son of Jewish immigrants, he felt the need to demonstrate his loyalty because anti-Semites otherwise might have questioned it. As with Vindman, his patriotism also stemmed from a sense of gratitude. Britain, his country, had kept him safe from Nazi persecution. There was anti-Semitism in Britain, too: certain clubs that refused to admit Jews, hospitals that wouldn’t take a Jewish intern, and so on. But I never heard him complain about this. Instead, he felt an extraordinary loyalty to the institutions that did accept him, including the Royal Army Medical Corps, and that fidelity extended to the country of his birth.
The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is.
Grateful patriotism should not be confused with the chauvinistic zeal displayed by some people from national minorities or marginal border regions: Napoleon from Corsica, Hitler from the Austrian borderlands, Stalin from Georgia. Some of the most fanatical Nazis were from German-speaking areas outside the mother country, such as Czechoslovakia and South Tyrol. Such people are less motivated by gratitude than by a desire for acceptance by the majority.
To Vindman’s family, the US offered a refuge from an authoritarian regime. There cannot be a stronger bond of allegiance. Watching Vindman testify was to see the greatest hope for America. He still believes that in spite of threats and smears and the toxic atmosphere of Trump’s Washington, he “will be fine for telling the truth.”
The words engraved on a plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are often quoted, but not always properly understood: “Give me your tired, your poor/your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Trump’s main adviser on immigration, Stephen Miller, himself from a family of Jewish immigrants, has disparaged these words. Immigrants have to speak English, he has said, and Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” does not represent “American values.”
In fact, ideally, Lazarus’s famous poem is the apotheosis of American values. Those huddled masses yearning to be free are the true patriots. They have traditionally been America’s greatest strength, embodying the kind of loyalty that is hardest to break. If the approach to tired and poor refugees is to vilify them as thieves, murderers, and rapists; lock them up; and separate them from their children, steadfast loyalty will give way to hostility, violence, and even terrorism. As a result, the traditional strength of the US is being sapped a bit more every day, until nothing will be left for which to yearn.
By Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.
Oped in arrangement between The Bhutanese and Project Syndicate (Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019)