A Kinder, Gentler Patriotism
by Howard Zinn
First published April 13, 2003 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
At some point soon the United States will declare a military victory in Iraq. As a patriot, I will not celebrate. I will mourn the dead – the American GIs, and also the Iraqi dead, of which there will be many, many more. I will mourn the Iraqi children who may not die, but who will be blinded, crippled, disfigured, or traumatized, like the bombed children of Afghanistan who, as reported by American visitors, lost their power of speech.
We will get precise figures for the American dead, but not for the Iraqis. Recall Colin Powell after the first Gulf War, when he reported the “small” number of U.S. dead, and when asked about the Iraqi dead, Powell replied: “That is really not a matter I am terribly interested in.”
As a patriot, contemplating the dead GI’s, should I comfort myself (as, understandably, their families do) with the thought: “They died for their country?” But I would be lying to myself. Those who die in this war will not die for their country. They will die for their government.
The distinction between dying for our country and dying for your government is crucial in understanding what I believe to be the definition of patriotism in a democracy. According to the Declaration of Independence – the fundamental document of democracy – governments are artificial creations, established by the people, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”, and charged by the people to ensure the equal right of all to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Furthermore, as the Declaration says, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
When a government recklessly expends the lives of its young for crass motives of profit and power (always claiming that its motives are pure and moral (“Operation Just Cause” was the invasion of Panama and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in the present instance) it is violating its promise to the country. It is the country that is primary – the people, the ideals of the sanctity of human life and the promotion of liberty. War is almost always (one might find rare instances of true self defense) a breaking of those promises. It does not enable the pursuit of happiness but brings despair and grief.
Mark Twain, having been called a “traitor” for criticizing the U.S. invasion of the Philippines, derided what he called “monarchical patriotism.” He said: “The gospel of the monarchical patriotism is: ‘The King can do no wrong.’ We have adopted it with all its servility, with an unimportant change in the wording: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ We have thrown away the most valuable asset we had: the individual’s right to oppose both flag and country when he believed them to be in the wrong. We have thrown it away; and with it all that was really respectable about that grotesque and laughable word, Patriotism.”
If patriotism in the best sense (not in the monarchical sense) is loyalty to the principles of democracy, then who was the true patriot, Theodore Roosevelt, who applauded a massacre by American soldiers of 600 Filipino men, women and children on a remote Philippine island, or Mark Twain, who denounced it?
With the war in Iraq won, shall we revel in American military power and – against the history of modern empires – insist that the American empire will be beneficent?
Our own history shows something different. It begins with what was called, in our high school history classes, “westward expansion” – a euphemism for the annihilation or expulsion of the Indian tribes inhabiting the continent – all in the name of “progress” and “civilization.” It continues with the expansion of American power into the Caribbean at the turn of the century, then into the Philippines, and then repeated marine invasions of Central America and long military occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
After World War II, Henry Luce, owner of Time, Life and Fortune, spoke of “the American Century”, in which this country would organize the world “as we see fit.” Indeed, the expansion of American power continued, too often supporting military dictatorships in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, because they were friendly to American corporations and the American government.
The American record does not justify confidence in its boast that it will bring democracy to Iraq. It will be painful to acknowledge that our GIs in Iraq were fighting not for democracy but for the expansion of the American empire, for the greed of the oil cartels, for the political ambitions of the president. And when they come home, they will find that their veterans’ benefits have been cut to pay for the machines of war. They will find the military budget growing at the expense of health, education and the needs of children. The Bush budget even proposes cutting the number of free school lunches.
I suggest that patriotic Americans who care for their country might act on behalf of a different vision. Do we want to be feared for our military might or respected for our dedication to human rights? With the war in Iraq over, if indeed it is really over, we need to ask what kind of a country will we be. Is it important that we be a military superpower? Is it not exactly that that makes us a target for terrorism? Perhaps we could become instead a humanitarian superpower.
Should we not begin to redefine patriotism? We need to expand it beyond that narrow nationalism which has caused so much death and suffering. If national boundaries should not be obstacles to trade – we call it globalization – should they also not be obstacles to compassion and generosity?
Should we not begin to consider all children, everywhere, as our own? In that case, war, which in our time is always an assault on children, would be unacceptable as a solution to the problems of the world. Human ingenuity would have to search for other ways.
Tom Paine used the word “patriot” to describe the rebels resisting imperial rule. He also enlarged the idea of patriotism when he said: “My country is the world. My countrymen are mankind.”
Howard Zinn is a professor emeritus at Boston University and author of “The People’s History of the United States.”