The Neocon Interpretation Of The Star-Spangled Banner Is Wrong

The Weekly Standard often has good ideas and good information but it is extremely neo-conservative. That means it is pretty loyal to big government and especially to the idea of America going to war whenever it wants to impose its will over any part of the planet.

On Monday Bill Kristol’s editorial was posted on the website. Kristol compared the World-War-I-era anti-war poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen to the Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key. He thinks these are two opposed pieces of literature.

The Latin, which translates as “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” comes from an ode of Horace’s. As [David] Frum pointed out, Horace’s line is one “that any educated Englishman of the last century would have learned in school.” Those pre-War Englishmen would, on the whole, have understood the line earnestly and quoted it respectfully. Not after the War. Living in the shadow of Wilfred Owen rather than Horace, the earnestness yielded to bitterness, the respect to disgust. As Frum puts it, “Scoffing at those words represented more than a rejection of war. It meant a rejection of the schools, the whole society, that had sent Owen to war.”

Considering that Owen willingly went into that war and fought in it until he was killed by German machine gun fire, I’m pretty amazed that Kristol (and Frum) find it so easy to portray him as some kind of coward. Has either of them ever served in the military?

And then comes the comparison to Francis Scott Key:

Francis Scott Key’s poem, composed within hours of the American victory and set the next day to a popular melody, was within days a popular song and within weeks “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Its first stanza is what is usually sung today, and it ends in a question:

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

It’s perhaps fitting and proper that the national anthem of a nation dedicated to the question of whether societies of men can govern themselves by reflection and choice ends not in a boast but in a question.

But the last stanza, less often sung, does in fact end with a confident assertion:

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!

A century after World War I, two centuries after Fort McHenry, do we dare take our bearings not from Owen’s bitter despair but from Francis Scott Key’s bold hope?

But Key’s “bold hope” was not exactly what Kristol seems to think. Unlike Owen sent to Europe to die for his country’s interest in a power struggle with Germany, Key was seeing a fort on U.S. soil getting pounded by a foreign invader. He wrote a poem about how American freemen would repel evil empires who attempted to dominate them.

Consider the middle two stanzas for context:

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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 washed out their foul footsteps’ 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!

Key is really clear that the battle is to defend the integrity and the borders of the United States. It shows no interest in conquering or dominating other lands. That was the enemy’s desire.

The Star Spangle Banner is a true representation of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. It defies world empires. It is a wonderful national anthem!