As we approach the 4th of July and I reminisce about playing football against the Marines at the embassy compound in Ashgabat, we will undoubtedly be inundated with all manner of “patriotism.” Nothing says “I love my country” like furniture and appliance sales or declaring on Facebook that “freedom isn’t free” while suggesting that pacifists are freeloading cowards instead of people who are averse to killing strangers in order to line the pockets of Halliburton share holders.
I love the U.S. I will probably get a little teary when I watch the fireworks this year because I spent my last two 4ths in a country with glaring human rights violations, so I understand more than most people the blessings of living in the Land of the Free. But there is a difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism says ‘if a foreigner badmouths my country, I will defend it.’ Nationalism says, ‘if a fellow countryman questions how our country does something I will call him a traitor.’ Patriotism recognizes the positives of our country and works toward changing the negatives. Nationalism denies or ignores the negatives and declares we are the best country in the world, “God bless America.”
Nationalism turns the country into an idol. It blinds us to the injustices of war. We fall for the “us vs. them” dichotomy, and, instead of thinking about the consequences and moral implications of war, we jump on the bandwagon because it’s what good ‘mericans do. “Support the troops” becomes code for “support the war” rather than actually supporting the troops by trying to find a way for them to come home sooner, or not go in the first place. We make jokes about bombing or nuking the enemy and are apathetic when we learn our military has engaged in torture.
One reason most Americans are cavalier about war is that they don’t know the realities of it. Our idea of war is formed by films where American soldiers take out the bad guys in a situation that is unrealistically presented as black and white. It is glossy and glorified. The most exposure the general populace got to the realities of war was during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when the news would report numbers of soldiers killed in a particular month. But then Americans just went back to watching the Kardashians or whatever. There’s a good article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/25/us/civilian-military-gap-grows-as-fewer-americans-serve.html?_r=0 about the implications of the civilian-military gap.
War hasn’t come to our shores in decades, and the last time it did, Pearl Harbor, it was an isolated incident that did minimal damage when considering the country as a whole. Compare it to the physical damage European countries suffered and you’ll see what I mean. But physical damage to buildings, infrastructure, etc. is nothing compared to physical and emotional damage suffered by civilians. If the majority of the American populace experienced war the way people in other parts of the world do, we wouldn’t be so hawkish in our military campaigns.
I recently read War is Not Over When It’s Over by Ann Jones. She visited women from several different countries torn apart by war and documented their experiences. It was heartrending and eye-opening to see how civilians are victimized in war. Here’s a quote from the chapter on Sierra Leone. “Official reports document appalling crimes: fathers forced to rape their own daughters; brothers forced to rape their sisters; boy soldiers who gang-rape old women, then chop off their arms; pregnant women eviscerated alive and the fetus snatched from the womb to satisfy the soldiers’ bet on its sex.” From the Democratic Republic of Congo: “As direct targets of men at war, women and girls suffered terribly…After rape, men commonly inserted foreign objects into the vaginas: sticks, sand, rocks, knives, rifle barrels, bottles, broken glass, pestles covered in pepper, burning wood or charcoal…” From speaking with Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon: “No Iraqi family has been spared the collateral damage of this war. Every Iraqi can name at least one lost relative dead or disappeared. Most I spoke with had suffered multiple tragedies…seven armed men broke into her [Faiza] house. They threatened to rape her daughters, and when the eldest son intervened, they shot him and cut off his head…What the men did during seven hours to Faiza and her daughters, Faiza declines to say.”
War is brutal and dehumanizing and damages the soul. Some will argue there is such a thing as a “just war.” But America hasn’t been involved in one since 1945. Am I glad for our independence? Yes. Do I think we were justified in rebelling against Britain? Not really. (And don’t get me started about how The Patriot is another example of American war propaganda) Am I glad we fought in WWII? Yes. Am I proud of our record when it comes to the Spanish-American, Mexican-American, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan Wars? Not so much. And I don’t have to be in order to be patriotic. Wouldn’t it be nice if every holiday on which we wave our flags, we do so with pride over our country’s humanitarian efforts? Wouldn’t it be great if we also paid tribute to embassy workers and Peace Corps volunteers and others who represent the U.S. through diplomacy? Wouldn’t it be amazing if what we took the most pride in on the 4th of July was not our military might, not the crushing of “our enemies,” be they the redcoats of long ago or whoever is the bogeyman du jour; but rather the ideals on which our country was founded: the strength of diversity, the ability of people from all different backgrounds to come together and live in harmony with shared ideals of hard work and community and democratic respect for one another regardless of race, religion, or class? That is what I’ll be celebrating this Independence Day. That and the quality that Alexis de Toqueville noticed when he said, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”