"On Patriotism," a talk presented March 26th, 2003 at St. Al's church at Gonzaga University, Spokane WA
A 12 year-old school girl in Maine wrote the following essay last year for her 6th grade class:
“The American flag stands for the fact that cloth can be very important. It is against the law to let the flag touch the ground or to leave the flag flying when the weather is bad. The flag has to be treated with respect. You can tell just how important this cloth is because when you compare it to people, it gets much better treatment. Nobody cares if a homeless person touches the ground. A homeless person can lie all over the ground all night long without anyone picking him up, folding him neatly and sheltering him from the rain.
School children have to pledge loyalty to this piece of cloth every morning. No one has to pledge loyalty to justice and equality and human decency. No one has to promise that people will get a fair wage, or enough food to eat, or affordable medicine, or clean water, or air free of harmful chemicals. But we all have to promise to love a rectangle of red, white, and blue cloth.
Betsy Ross would be quite surprised to see how successful her creation has become. But Thomas Jefferson would be disappointed to see how little of the flag's real meaning remains.”
As an opponent of this war, and an American historian, I have spent a great deal of time recently agonizing over what patriotism demands of us. Like millions around this nation, my acts of protest before the war began have inspired accusations of disloyalty; even within the anti-war movement, many have said that all protests must stop once the first shots are fired – that patriotism demands that we support the troops, and unify behind our leaders and our soldiers. I do not agree. Or, at the very least, I do not share the same definition of patriotism, nor of ‘support.’ Indeed, it is my patriotism that drives me to speak louder now that the war has begun. The logic is simple. If it is right to oppose a wrong when it is being publicly contemplated, how much more important is it to do so when it is in the process of commission? “When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and the purity of its heart.”
It is not those who protest the war who need to justify themselves. The burden of proof is on the makers of war. As former President Jimmy Carter said recently, “war is sometimes a necessary evil. But it is ALWAYS an evil.” I’d like to share my thoughts on war, patriotism and support of the troops with you this morning. This will not simply be a plea for peace; it will also be a plea to stop THIS war. I can’t help that. I apologize if this talk will seem strident to you, but I believe it is important for those who support this war, and those who oppose it, and those who aren’t sure, to understand how much in common we share.
Why do I oppose this war? There are many reasons, but among the most important is my belief as an American in the rule of law over the rule of force. Under the new Bush Doctrine, a bold military strategy of preemptive attacks–including the possibility of a unilateral nuclear first strike– is intended to prevent any state or group of states from challenging our preeminent role in the world. The war in Iraq is the first application of this doctrine. Preemptive war, however, is unequivocally illegal. This prohibition was incorporated into the United Nations Charter after WWII as the basis for a new system of collective security in which no state retained the unilateral right to attack another–with two specified exceptions: self defense and Security Council authorization.
All of us should consider whether this radical new strategy is good for our country and the world, and whether it best represents what this nation stands for. What would happen in a world stripped of the very laws designed half a century ago to protect humanity from the carnage of unrestrained force? Can pure military might really defend us from evil and secure our freedom at the same time? The passage of the USA-Patriot Act should tell us no.
Before it is too late, we would do well to heed Sir Thomas More’s advice on the rule of law in the play “A Man for All Seasons.”
And when the last law was cut down and the devil turned around on you,
where would you hide, the laws all being flat? Do you really think
that you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?
Why do I believe that it is a patriotic act to protest against this war? There are two visions of America, I believe, with deep roots in our history. One precedes our founding fathers and finds its roots in the harshness of our puritan past. It is very suspicious of freedom, uncomfortable with diversity, unfriendly to reason, contemptuous of personal autonomy. It sees America exclusively as a religious nation. It views patriotism as akin to allegiance to God. It secretly adores coercion and conformity. Despite our Constitution, despite the legacy of the Enlightenment, it appeals to millions of Americans and threatens our freedom, in peace and wartime.
The other vision finds its roots in the spirit of our founding revolution, and in the words of the Declaration of Independence. It loves freedom, encourages diversity, embraces reason and affirms the dignity and rights of every individual. It sees America as a moral nation, neither completely religious nor completely secular. It defines patriotism neither as blind obedience to government, nor as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one's country and one's fellow citizens (all over the world), and as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy.
The admirable obligation human beings feel to their neighbors, their loved ones, and their fellow citizens, all too often becomes confused with blind obedience to government. Most of the evils in world history have come from obedience, not disobedience; from conformity, not from dissent. Unity, stability and order are not the only desirable conditions of social life, even in wartime. There is also justice, meaning the fair treatment of all human beings, the equal right of all people to life, liberty and prosperity. Absolute obedience to law may bring order temporarily, but it may not bring justice. And when it does not, patriotism may require us to disobey the law; and citizens may protest, may rebel, may cause disorder, as the American revolutionaries did in the eighteenth century, as antislavery people did in the nineteenth century, as Chinese students did in the last century, and as anti-war protesters are doing now.
It is this second vision which is my vision, my patriotism. It is the vision of a free society. We must be bold enough to proclaim it, and strong enough to defend it against all its enemies, even during wartime. When he spoke out against the Vietnam war, Martin Luther King explained his protest simply: “I criticize America because I love her. I want her to stand as a moral example to the world.” If we do not speak out in protest, King continued, “we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” With Dr. King, I claim, without pretense or apology, a place in the long and honorable tradition of those who demand that American ideals apply to all and oppose the efforts of those, from whatever quarter, who try to reserve them for privileged groups and ignoble causes. The most effective way to love our country, I submit, is to fight like hell to change it. Through most of U.S. history, this brand of patriotism was indispensable to the cause of social change. As the poet Langston Hughes wrote, "Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed. Let it be that great strong land of love where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme; that any man be crushed by one above."
Given this vision of patriotism, what does ‘support the troops’ mean to me? First, supporting the troops means preparing the nation as a whole to join with the soldiers in equally and justly sharing the burdens of a democratically declared war (though this is not, as of yet, a ‘declared’ war). This should include an ongoing public debate over the rightness, the wrongness, and the feasibility of this war. This means to me, among other things, following the precedent of WWII and initiating economic and fiscal policies that call on all of us to sacrifice, and that support the troops and their families. This would decidedly NOT include a series of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and punishing budget cuts in the programs which provide social and economic security for the American working and middle classes -- who provide most of the soldiers, and build most of our weapons.
Second, Supporting our troops means seeing to it that they have jobs, and the means to re-adjust to civilian life upon their de-mobilization. Recently, the Republican majority on the House Budget Committee voted for $25 billion in cuts in the Department of Veterans Affairs budget, and a $204 million cut in the Impact Aid program that supports the education of soldiers' children. 163,000 veterans of the Gulf War continue to suffer from largely unaddressed illnesses from exposure to the fall out from destroyed chemical weapons, ammunition depots, oil fires, depleted uranium and experimental drugs. I question where the compassionate conservative support for our troops will be in a few years time, when they come back home, and seek employment, a union contract, a safe workplace, a living wage, and a labor market and system of higher education free from racial discrimination. History (as well as the President’s budget) tells us the support of our troops will fall somewhat short of this, unless we speak up for them. Supporting the troops doesn’t mean abject silence. It means seeing them as real human beings, with families, with fears, with rights, with opinions, and with moral consciences which will be stretched to the limit by the nature of modern war. And as human beings who will hopefully live long lives upon their return.
Last, and most important: supporting the troops means speaking up on their behalf, and demanding that our elected representatives do so as well. The men and women in our armed forces are duty-bound to follow the orders of our commander-in-chief. That is their job; it is their citizenship duty, and they should be honored and respected for fulfilling it, in an age when too many of us see democracy as a spectator sport. I salute them for their sacrifice on behalf of our nation. I thank them for their willingness to risk their lives. Even as I praise our servicemen and women, however, I regret that the President of the United States has ordered them to start a preemptive war fought without international support. A preemptive, unilateral war is unworthy of the honor and tradition of the U.S. military. Our armed forces should not be invading and occupying other countries. In a democracy, it is we the people that send them to war; it is we, the people, who choose when to bring them home. They die in our name, and they kill in our name. To attempt to cut off public discussion once the war starts – or even to question whether the public has any legitimate say at all – both undermines our essential values, and jeopardizes our soldiers far more than any protest ever could. We cannot shirk this responsibility, nor can we allow others to fulfill it for us. We must speak up for the soldiers, regardless of what we think about the war itself. Do you want to know how to support the troops in wartime? Do not be a cheerleader. Be a citizen. Speak up for them, in all their diversity. When we silence any of us, we silence them as well.
The idea of 'support our troops' is troubling for those who oppose this war, because it is being used by many to hammer dissenting voices into silence. Given my definition of support above, I intend to get louder, not quieter, once the war begins. It is my patriotic duty to do so.
I would like to conclude with the words of Mark Twain:
“Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catchphrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country- hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
- Mark Santow
- I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.