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New patriotism defined by ideology, not action

There was no official announcement, no press release. But make no mistake about it. As demonstrated daily in the language used by those who wage and those who analyze this uninspiring presidential campaign, the historic meaning of the word "patriotism" has been totally rewritten.

Don't take my word for it. Just listen. No longer is a patriot someone who has selflessly put the common good before personal comfort or someone who voluntarily sacrifices for the safety of country and countrymen. That is outdated patriotism. No, in the fall of 2004, after being successfully hijacked by partisans, "patriotism" now has nothing to do with one's personal conduct or courage. "Patriotism" now means ideology.

To be a patriot by today's debased rhetoric is easy. It involves no personal risk or discomfort, no sacrifice of any kind. You will pay no price. You will bear no burden. All you have to do is to give relentless and uncritical backing to the unilateral invasion and occupation by the United States military of agreed-upon unfriendly countries.

Consider the following facts: In spite of his personal doubts about the wisdom of his country's war policy in Vietnam, this young man from a privileged background with an Ivy League degree volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam where he was honored for bravery. Convinced that the U.S. policy in Vietnam was mistaken, John Kerry returned to civilian life where he publicly sought to change the U.S. war policy.

(One could argue that if he had succeeded in changing U.S. policy that John Kerry would have effectively spared our incumbent president and vice president from the painful moral conflict of choosing whether to answer or to avoid their nation's draft call to military service.)

Our second young man came from an even more privileged family background and also possessed an Ivy League degree. When he secured a coveted position in his home state's national guard, he was asked if he would volunteer for overseas duty and he officially declined to do so. But George W. Bush, like Dick Cheney, unflinchingly supported the U.S. war in Vietnam. True, neither chose to personally serve in the war he supported. But let it be noted that they never criticized or protested any Vietnam policies of the U.S. government. By contemporary illogic, that, coupled with their creation of and passionate advocacy for the U.S. war in Iraq, qualifies them as patriots. But not John Kerry.

Where did we go so wrong? Why have we forgotten the wise Republican president who said during the First World War, when dissent was being attacked as disloyalty, that "to announce that there must be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong is not only unpatriotic and servile, it is morally treasonable to the American people." Thank you, Theodore Roosevelt.

Patriotism now means talking tough, being tough-minded _ which mostly consists of endorsing U.S. military action to solve problems and publicly disparaging international diplomacy. You can also find an overload of tough-talking, tough-minded types in the political press corps. Virtually none of the press bus "patriots" ever risked corrupting his views of the country's military or warfare by personal exposure to either military service or combat. By their lights, if you dare to question, let alone oppose, the next U.S. war du jour, then you are a hopeless wuss.

When he was praised for his leadership of U.S. troops in the first Gulf War, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf declined: "It doesn't take a hero to order men into battle."

As for me, I prefer the old-fashioned patriotism when personally brave Americans are willing to sacrifice for the common good and the national interest. This patriotism has taken many forms. It included accepting the rationing of meat and gasoline, buying bonds, collecting scrap metal and waste paper, sharing with our neighbors, raising vegetables and even paying higher taxes. These are all the acts of patriots.

Patriotism is not position papers or macho swagger, nor is patriotism the property of any political party or ideology. Of course, those who courageously risk their life and limbs in behalf of the nation are indeed patriots. Such a list would include former Sens. Bob Kerrey and Max Cleland, and current Sens. Chuck Hagel, John McCain and, yes, John Kerry.

Mark Shields is a syndicated columnist and an analyst for NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Mark Shields