Friday I received my DD form 214 from the Navy saying that I will be honorably discharged one month from today. I threw a couple of mooring lines from the pier to cast off my ship, which was embarking the same day on a qualifying underway schedule. It will, fingers confidently crossed, be the final act I’ll perform for the United States military, an organization with whose mission I have deep problems. I went to an office on base, handed in my check-out forms and a personnel specialist gave me a beautiful blue folder with the 214 and various other documents.
I had been under the impression that someone would retrieve my military ID so I couldn’t have access to base facilities that are reserved mostly for active-duty sailors, but no one did. So I woke up very early this morning, drove back on base and used the gym for an hour. On my way back out, colors was starting, which is a twice-daily ceremony where the American flag is first raised then lowered. During the morning colors, base loudspeakers play the Star-Spangled Banner. Sailors in uniform are required to stop and salute the flag through the national anthem. Those in civilian clothing pop to attention. Drivers stop and place their hands in their laps. But shrewd ones duck into buildings where these edicts of respect don’t apply – which to me belies a lack of patriotism that is often in popular circles ascribed to military service members. (In my experience, most sailors did not join because they wanted to serve their country but because they wanted better benefits than were available in the private sector.)
As I drove from the gym, the Star-Spangled Banner started to blare through my open driver window just as my tires hit a speed bump exactly inside the base gate. Technically I should have stopped, but I gunned it and sped toward the exit to the main road off base, the doppler effect prolonging the notes of the dramatic song until I couldn’t hear it anymore.
Cast any aspersion you wish – I’m comfortable with my distaste for the conventions of an organization that propagates the hellish institution of war. In any case, though, there are two sides to the tale of the ballad’s history.
The first and more popular (since the verses embody our nation’s patriotism and cannot be tainted by racism) goes like this. Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer, penned the lyrics for the song as a poem originally titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” It was inspired at the culmination of his vantage of the famous Royal Navy attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The attack consisted of a sustained fusillade of bombs launched from 19 British ships that lasted 25 hours from September 13 to 14. Key was a lucky white man – born to plantation-owning parents, he embodied white privilege. He was held by the British as a character witness for American prisoner of war on the British command ship that led the attack on Fort McHenry. They would be releases only after the attack. Key’s mind was marked by incredible dismay at British victories in recent battles. As he watched the vicious attack on Fort McHenry unfold, he couldn’t conceive that the Americans would win. But as a flag, of stars and stripes, rose from the smoke toward the end of the assault, an American victory became clear. This sight inspired the words of the “Defence,” and most know their chant. (Google it, if you’re unclear.)
What’s lost in this telling is a palpable and crucial fact of the war. The British had initiated the conflict because they had seen the Americans as instrumental allies to the enemy in Britain’s ongoing wars with the French. The United States had been trading on neutral ground with the French, and the British saw this trade as a bulwark of French military actions. It waged a war on America to stop the flow of goods and to abet its efforts, it publicly called for the defection of black American slaves to fight on behalf of the British in exchange for freedom in Halifax. The defecting slaves helped the British win their victories leading up to the Battle at Fort McHenry.
A crucial third stanza of the American national anthem is omitted during official events that portray the victory as a lynchpin of American values. Key, a racist, was bitter that slaves would dare take leave of their chains to fight for the British and assist in filling some of Key’s people. So he included in the venerated poem these words, a selfish dig, which serve as the third stanza:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The land of the free. The home of the brave.
What home? What country? The blood of slaves had previously only been given to the bringing in of crops and for the entertainment of white men. The flag waved over, as Key put it, the sifting of the certain humans who could sustain the American economy as it were (and would be).
This history was quickly lost in popular culture but was revived anew and rewritten in the early twentieth century, as lawmakers tried to co-opt the poem for nationalistic purposes. It took 14 tries to get the legislation through congress making the Star-Spangled Banner America’s official patriotic song in 1931. But that effort realized the third stanza was inconsistent with American values that were enshrined in our culture subsequently to the Star-Spangled Banner’s writing. It was secretly expunged. By which I don’t mean to say it was deleted from history. The full text of the song is easily accessible on Google. But it is deleted, generally, from our history of it, even by blacks. Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Jennifer Hudson, and Beyonce all sang it at the Superbowl. All skipped the third stanza. Swept up in the pageantry, black football players teared up. To think what all the slaves who defected to the British reasoned for to justify their insolence in the War of 1812. I feel safe assuming they’d not look kindly on the rewriting of history.
Key, in retrospect, probably would have wanted his song to be remembered this way. Bitterness has a way of dissipating. The perception of slights gives way to perspective. We hold grudges simply for the sake of politics. The problem is, politics is insidious. It dives under our skin and builds a callous. We take a tenderizing hammer to some of these callouses. Parts of the American callous against gays and transgenders have been beaten off (no pun). Unfortunately, some calcify before they can be cast off, and racism is one of these latter.