Patriotism and the Fourth of July
by Howard Zinn
AlterNet July 4, 2006, http://www.alternet.org/
In celebration of the Fourth of July there
will be many speeches about the young people who "died for
their country." But those who gave their lives did not, as
they were led to believe, die for their country; they died for
their government. The distinction between country and government
is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence, which will
be referred to again and again on July 4, but without attention
to its meaning.
The Declaration of Independence is the
fundamental document of democracy. It says 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." It is the country that is primary--the people, the ideals
of the sanctity of human life and the promotion of liberty.
When a government recklessly expends the
lives of its young for crass motives of profit and power, while
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. War is almost always a breaking of
that promise. 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,
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? Today, U.S. soldiers who are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan
are not dying for their country; they are dying for Bush and Cheney
and Rumsfeld. They are dying for the greed of the oil cartels,
for the expansion of the American empire, for the political ambitions
of the president. They are dying to cover up the theft of the
nation's wealth to pay for the machines of death. As of July 4,
2006, more than 2,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq,
more than 8,500 maimed or injured. With the war in Iraq long declared
a "Mission Accomplished," shall we revel in American
military power and insist that the American empire will be beneficent?
Our own history is enough to make one
wary. Empire 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, in
the name of "progress" and "civilization."
It continues with the expansion of American power into the Caribbean
at the turn of the 20th 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 record does not justify confidence in Bush's boast that the
United States will bring democracy to Iraq.
Should Americans welcome the expansion
of the nation's power, with the anger this has generated among
so many people in the world? Should we welcome the huge growth
of the military budget at the expense of health, education, the
needs of children, one fifth of whom grow up in poverty? Instead
of being feared for our military prowess, we should want to be
respected for our dedication to human rights. I suggest that a
patriotic American who cares for her or his country might act
on behalf of a different vision. Should we not begin to redefine
patriotism? We need to expand it beyond that narrow nationalism
that has caused so much death and suffering. If national boundaries
should not be obstacles to trade-- some 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.
Howard Zinn is a veteran of World War
II and author of the bestselling book, A People's History of the
United States. The following essay is an excerpt from Zinn's forthcoming
book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress.