A Kinder, Gentler Patriotism

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: Iraq Views: 2572

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."

Source: Newsday

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: Iraq
Views: 2572

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Older Comments:
First i would like to congradulate you on such a good worded article. But i have one question, with the way that america is headed right now as a military super power, do think that they will ever change? Or are they just waiting for another catastrophe to occur towards them? I think America should of played a differnt role after 911, you would think that they would learn from there mistakes in the past and try to be friends with the so called axes of evil, why do you think America is going the worong way, and making there name alot worse in the muslim world?

Final word we can live in peace if America choses to. After all they are the powerful ones, so i hope they play the role a big brother and not the evil brother to the world.

Actually, Lane. You are the one with the narrow views. More children have suffered in this war and will continue to suffer as long as the US just protects the ministry of oil and ignores the security of the people whose lives on which they made a devastating impact. Think about it what if your assets were destroyed. Your money was no longer good. Your hospitals were not well equipped and were over-burdened. And NOW the US wants the UN to do its clean-up job. Fact is the US needs to keeps its paws out of other countries' business. God knows how many curses of innocent victims the US has recieved. The US and all of its narrow-minded individuals WILL be held accountable, because GOD will do JUSTICE. Where are the weapons of mass destruction hunh? Thats just an excuse. Israel has those weapons, biological, nuclear and chemical. Whats been done about that. God forbid they do any so called justice there. Greenspan and his cronies will topple the economy.

Thank you Dr. Zinn for expressing your stance about this war. As Americans, we are constantly bombarded with the thought of mainstream media, which are controlled by local, state, and federal governments that are not always focused on the well-being of mankind. It is sad to say that we may not really wake up and smell the coffee until something happens to us, and on our own soil (even to a greater extent than 9-11)

truth could not have been said better than this article. i wish that at least 30% of my fellow americans could fathom what is being stated in this article then there is opportunity for another true american century.
i hope the souls founding fathers of this great nation will rekindle the american spirit and restore the honor of my great adopted nation.

Could you have narrower view of the US? "Those who die in
this war will not die for their country. They will die for their
government." In a true democracy the government is the
people and the people are the country.
War is horrible but to only focus on the precious lives
recently lost and forget the 100,000's lost to this wicked
regime and others is wrong. "Should we not begin to
consider all children, everywhere, as our own?" I believe we
are part of these children and as such have a duty to
protect them as well as are selves!

Excellent article! I commend Dr. Zinn on his humanity & intellectual honesty in writing this piece. I would also like to add that after the
American Revolutionary War (in which Thomas Paine sacrificed so much in the name of independence), the new American nation treated him w/contempt. Mr. Paine left for France, was imprisoned, & upon his release returned to America. He died w/very little money, his property ransacked by souvenir hunters, & even his remains were taken to England by a greedy businessman. To date, no one knows where his bones are! This is a prime example of what this country (& many other countries)do to their honorable people who are incorruptible! It takes words & actions to be men & women of honor. Thank you, Dr. Zinn & please continue your work to wake up Americans & people of the world to the true meaning of honor, duty, & courage!

If the author is making a case for global socialism, I personally do not wish to participate. Global socialism, I would say, is no more than "enlightened imperialism" disguised to look like a charity. At least the author doesn't seem to be an isolationist or someone really dangerous like that.

I think what the author is proposing (to have America become a humanitarian superpower) is, in reality, where America first starts to get into trouble with the rest of the world. Most foreign aid programs seem to become little more than tools for that government to use in the economic extortion of other governments.

I think Americans need to recognize and diminish the ways in which we disrupt the rest of the world - through unhealthy business arrangements and so on. I think we ought to inspire ourselves to have a lesser impact on the world, as opposed to a greater impact.

Also, the author seems to have (perhaps conveniently) forgotten about America's relative success in assisting Germany and Japan, during their own efforts to reconstruct themselves after World War II (as well as perhaps the author's own involvement in that particular war). Never-the-less, America's wrong-doing - including the wronging of certain Americans - in some cases more than a century ago - is still waiting to be remedied.

Personally, I would like to see someone (whether considered a friend or foe of America) make some attempt to form a kinder, gentler form of empire. I believe such an construction would be based on law and order - with a minimal degree of compulsion as far the welfare of the individual is concerned (beyond what must be compelled for the welfare of the community).

As Salaamu Alaikum.

Very beautifully said indeed. You are right Mr. Zinn when you said "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." I hope other people who read more about what are the real motives of this government, people will realize soon realize how wrong they were. It's a matter of educating our fellow Americans. True life is not CNN, Fox or other network media. I ask God the almighty to save us from dictators who are so much indulge in their beurecratic-thinking.


We are happy to see that this world is still have some people with compassionate heart.
I pray that we have more people like Mr Howard Zinn in American Govenment instead of the ones we have now.
American people are wonderful but easily carried away without using their brains by CNN.

If my children died or disfigured by the bombings or the war, I would not think twice to become a suicide bomber. Afterall, I have lived long enough as compared to my children. This could explains the reasons behind those suicide bombers in Palestine or anywhere else. There is no more reason to continue living but suffering!