Right Song, Wrong Stanza For Celebrating Our Nation
Our national anthem, as we all well know, is serious business. Why else would we play it at every public event? Why else does an individual, especially a male, risk his safety if he fails to stand when it is played?
We take the national anthem seriously because it expresses our national identity. Conversely, the national anthem helps mold that identity. So we do well to reflect on what the anthem says. Does it express a mindless militarism? Or does it lead us to think on the purposes our nation exists for?
As we approach our most important national holiday this year, we find the international cauldron and the immigration dilemma, among other things, raising even more strongly the question of what we are as a nation and what we ought to be. That is why I submit again my thoughts on the Star Spangled Banner.
If we thought about the words that come out of our mouths when we sing the national anthem – specifically its first stanza -- we’d realize that its only point is to celebrate and glorify victory in battle – it’s a song of war, exulting in victory over our foes, with only a one-line afterthought to show tentatively why we might deserve to be victorious. If I didn’t know better, I might think it’s the war song of some neo-Fascist group.
The Fourth of July, dedicated to commemoration of our nation’s ideals, might be a good occasion to ask whether the Star-Spangled Banner really expresses those ideals.
This holiday is meant to celebrate our nation’s virtues, its nobility of purpose, and its grand history wherein that nobility and that virtue are displayed. Why, then, do we mark it by singing a song that only commemorates one particular battle – a battle that was part of a stupid and futile war, a battle whose sole distinction is that it was one of the few that saved the War of 1812 from being remembered as an utter catastrophe. As a patriotic emblem, the first stanza of “The Star Spangled Banner” is a bust.
As we habitually sing the words, do we really mean to imply that the most important fact in our country’s history was that a banner flew over an embattled fort after a long night of fighting? Is mere victory in battle, regardless of our cause, what we wish to celebrate? Has “Our country right or wrong” become our rationale -- a rationale that validates our acting with impunity in the world? Are we celebrating “might” with no consideration of “right?” If these are our convictions, they are better left unexpressed.
There is a better alternative, and it is close at hand:
Oh, thus be it ever, when free men shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!Blessed with vict’ry and peace, may our heav’n-rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”
And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
This of course is the splendid last stanza of “The Star Spangled Banner,” as different from the first stanza as day from night. This last stanza celebrates a nation dedicated to ideals derived from a higher source, and it exhorts us to measure our accomplishments against those ideals. It honors the tragic but noble sacrifices necessary to achieve those ideals in a world where ideals are always in peril.
In saying “…conquer we must, when our cause it is just” (not “for our cause it is just”) the final stanza rejects the “Our country, right or wrong” mentality.
More than poetic taste is involved. After all, the purpose of singing a national anthem is to reinforce certain ways of thinking in the minds of those who sing it. The first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” reinforces an unthinking tribal loyalty to our country, based only on the fact that it is OUR country. This narrow chauvinism puts us on the same plane as any other nation, good, bad or indifferent. Any thought of a virtuous purpose is strictly an afterthought, added on to justify the aggressiveness of the rest. Surely we can do better than that.
By contrast, the final stanza expresses dedication to values greater than mere national existence, values that constitute our greatness and help justify our claim to nobility. We profess to be a nation grateful for its freedom and intent on using that freedom to achieve the best that humans are capable of. That is the best and truest patriotism, and that is what the last stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” stands for. It is our proper anthem, and deserves to be recognized as such.