Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

Since the Bush administration launched the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, through the invasion of Iraq, and up to the present, patriotism has been much on my mind. After 9/11, and the location of al Queda in Afghanistan, the invasion of that remote and rugged country was as inevitable as the tide. I limited my emotional investment to speculation that the Bush administration would probably mess it up somehow, but hoping for the best even so. I was absolutely against the invasion of Iraq, being convinced that it was nothing more than the indulgence of a president whose foreign policy notions derived from old John Wayne films. So far, I have not been disabused of these opinions. Thus, for millions of Americans who supported both wars, I am not a patriot.

Or am I? That depends on which of the three major schools of patriotism you follow: the original version, the military/industrial version, or the peace & justice version. Each version made its debut well over a century ago, even though the vast majority of Americans are aware of only the first two.

The Original

Of the several stirring expressions of patriotic sentiment that underlie our national identity as Americans, "My country right or wrong" is perhaps the most widely accepted as definitive. The original phrase was coined in April, 1816, by Stephen Decatur, a daring and highly successful U.S. naval officer. At a dinner held in his honor, Decatur raised his glass in a toast:

"Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong."

As a military man, of course, Decatur was obligated to obey his commander-in-chief's orders, ethically sound or not. But, it appears that he had some sense of what might be considered "wrong" intercourse with other nations in those days, and we might even expect that in those more intimate times, had his president considered embarking upon such "wrong" intercourse, Decatur might have argued vigorously against it. Given the rambunctious press of that era, it is plausible that his views would even have become known to the general public. In today's Navy, Decatur would probably have been quietly forced into an early retirement for even suggesting the possibility that "our country" might sometimes be in the wrong "in her intercourse with foreign nations."

Military-Industrial patriotism

Not surprisingly, Decatur's heartfelt expression of love for his country was immediately seized upon by at least one businessman with an agenda surpassing that of the defense of the nation, or even the promotion of liberty and justice for all. Within a few days of the dinner, Niles' Weekly Register published a number of toasts raised by other attendees. Decatur's own toast appeared as follows:

"Our country—In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong." (Emphasis in the original.)

The alert newspaper owner or editor realized that by raising the possibility that America might behave "wrongly" vis-a-vis foreign nations, Decatur also implied that in such morally suspect cases, America might not deserve to achieve its wrong-headed goal. Shame on Decatur, who had risked his life to protecting American merchant ships from Mediterranean pirates. Best to modify the toast to make it appear that at the highest levels of America's warrior class, to forgo success in any endeavor, right or wrong, was unthinkable.

I do not know whether Decatur knew of the lie that this creative 19th century businessman put in his mouth, or whether he would have approved of it had he known. But it is virtually certain that this version of Decatur's toast earned the author 19th century "high fives" from his fellow entrepreneurs. Being economic realists, they of course knew that sticking to moral principle would not bring America the power, territory, and booty that enriched them. So, a subtle tweaking of the quote, from the most powerful sector of the American polity—the business class—would provide comforting pre-approval for whatever foreign enterprise the president might choose. As long as it was successful.

And that, of course, is just how our country's "intercourse with foreign nations" played out over the years. Had the French not sold the vast Louisiana Purchase to President Thomas Jefferson, we can bet that an excuse would soon have been found to win it by military conquest, in spite of France's solidarity and assistance during the Revolution. The Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars were strictly imperialist ventures. After Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War, the same Filipino patriots who had fought alongside of American soldiers tried to form an independent government. The U.S. Army responded with a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that ultimatley left 216,000 Filipinos dead, the vast majority being civilians who died from famine and disease. 4234 American soldiers were killed.

In 1917, after a period during which the U.S. was embarrassed by accusations of imperilialist ambitions, the Russians went communist and provided the U.S. with a perfect excuse for further "successful," and mostly wrong, "intercourse with foreign nations."

After the Soviet Union fell, traditional U.S. foreign policy was called into question by those who expected a "peace dividend." In response to this dilemma, a group of right-wing neoconservatives created the Project for the New American Century. PNAC boldly called for expanded American military power, and for unabashed U.S. global hegemony: America would become the law-maker and law-enforcer for the entire world.

There was of course some resistance at home to this vision of American empire. Then came a miracle: 9/11. Soon, the U.S. military-industrial-foreign policy establishment was back to its imperialist agenda with a vengeance. (PNAC founders are the godfathers and policy makers of the present Bush administration.) Thus, military/industrial patriotism remains dominant, and those who do not wholeheartedly ascribe to it risk being called traitors.

Peace & Justice patriotism

"The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming ‘My country right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."   Senator Carl Schurz, 1872.

In 1899, Schurz reaffirmed his vision of patriotism at the Anti-Imperialistic Conference in Chicago, Illinois:

“I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves . . . too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right, to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’” (Here Schurz may have been speaking out against the annexation of the Philippines.)

This the patriotism I, and thousands of Americans in the peace and justice movement hold to. It is the patriotism that really does believe in liberty and justice for all-including the peoples of other nations-and does not sell out this sublime value to America’s corporate community. To borrow from Clyde Prestowitz, we celebrate America’s values over its lifestyle. (See Prestowitz’s book, Rogue Nation.)

Nor does this patriotism seek to justify odious American foreign policy by the specious argument that other nations have behaved worse. We insist on setting our own highest moral standards, rather than setting the worst behavior of other nations as the lower limit of our own. We believe that the behavior of the Nazis and the Stalinists has provided far too much wiggle room for American policymakers.

Finally, being an American is for us more than simply being a member of a particularly prosperous and powerful tribe, in which primitive tribal codes—e.g.: contempt for other nations—are obscured by general prosperity and an increasingly tenuous tolerance for criticism of “the American Way” at home.

In response to yet another of my familiar rants against U.S. foreign policy, a dear friend once asked if there was anything about America that I did like. I answered yes, in the main, there were two: first, I was grateful that I had been allowed to protest my country’s foreign interventions without being disappeared in the night. Second, I was profoundly grateful for the respectable number of former military personnel, who, after deep and agonizing soul-searching, came out vigorously against the overwhelmingly violent U.S. policy toward the Third World.

I said that I doubted if former military personnel of other nations, in the midst of their imperialist phases, had protested so strongly against their government’s policies, if at all. I suggested that to a large degree, America’s greatness lies in the moral courage shown by these incontestable patriots. They provided inspiration for my own efforts opposing President Reagan’s brutal Central America policy, and I like to think that Stephen Decatur would have approved of them.

At the time, I neglected to mention that I was also grateful not only for freedom of the press, but also for the fact that a respectable number of reporters, investigators, and even former government officials actually take advantage of that freedom, and from their own expert perspective write books critical of U.S. foreign policy.

The Bush administration has cynically played on the patriotic sentiments of millions of decent Americans to gain their unthinking support for America’s role as the New Rome. This plan is destined to fail, and if it is not stopped, America will fall as Rome fell. Only if America’s policy-makers are patient; only if they recognize the legitimate interests of other nations; and only if they invest our considerable moral capital in building a global community can America survive in any desirable form.

March 7, 2004

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