Re: Patriots and the Fourth of July

One final thought on the definition of patriotism as the obedience to one’s government, particularly how the State manipulates an admirable quality in order to commit one of its most awful crimes, war.

Imagine there are two men who fight in opposing armies. They are both considered patriots because they are acting in obedience to their rulers, or they enlisted because they genuinely love their country and have been deceived by their governments into thinking they must kill to protect it.

Let us suppose these two men are of good character, as many in wars throughout history have been. During a battle, one of them kills the other in a brutal fashion. Under any other circumstances, we would condemn this as an act of murder, a vicious killing. Instead, we see it as a tragedy, a necessary tragedy.

One example was the Battle of Fredericksburg, where Irish forces on the Union and Confederate side fought each other. The Confederate Irish brigade, hidden behind a stonewall, decimated the Irish troops fighting for the Union, practically destroying the 69th Division. As the Union troops retreated, the Confederates cheered their bravery. There was no hatred between them. Had there been no war, they would have been comrades, perhaps even friends. Yet they killed each other solely because men in both governments convinced them that they were needed to fight.

How can this not be considered a crime, and not necessarily a crime by the men who kill but by the men who order them to kill? How can patriotism be considered a good thing when it necessitates that good men, men of character, kill each other only because of disputes between their governments? How many good men have opposed each other in wars because they felt bound by the orders of their governments? How many good men have spent the rest of their lives haunted by the lives of innocent men they have taken, knowing that just because they killed in battle it didn’t excuse their conduct?

This is why patriotism can only be morally justified, or deemed acceptable, under the Non-Aggression Principle. A patriotic man can fight to protect the rights of those around him, as well as his own and his family. Patriotism, real patriotism, inspires a love that protects, not destroys.

There is not much to say of the type of patriotism, however, that spurs a man to go to a place far away to kill another man who is merely trying to defend his homeland and his loved ones and who was no threat to him – and all because his rulers told him he needed to do it.

The morality of such patriotism is not logical. If two men patriotically try to kill one another, who is justified? Are both justified? Can one be held responsible for what they do? Can the family of the deceased hold it against him? Why, he was only doing his patriotic duty, wasn’t he? I can’t imagine it would be of any comfort to a family whose loved one was shot in the throat and left to die slowly to know that the men who killed him did it out of patriotism.

Patriotism can never justify killing. It is not a sufficient rationale. Only the violation of the Non-Aggression Principle can justify violence against another person, and the violence must be proportional to the violation.

This true form of patriotism is scoffed at, however, because nowhere is the State involved. The State cannot use patriotism as a rallying cry to gain support for its illegal activities. This is why the State and its adherents support the idea of a patriotism in which the individual serves the State, rather than his own self-interests.

I happen to admire Walt Disney and his work. Read his biography, An American Original, and you see he was a brave man of vision and immense creativity. I have to work hard, however, to forgive him for this 1943 propaganda cartoon featuring Donald Duck that encourages Americans to pay their income taxes because it is “patriotic.”

In a History Channel documentary on the Alamo, a historian remarked that the patriotism of the defenders was in some ways a form of enlightened selfishness. When the movie The Patriot came out in 2000, critics lambasted it for portraying patriotism as a matter of personal self-interest, and not selfless ones, because the protagonist only partakes in the War of Independence after his home is burned and his son murdered.

All I can say is that we should be so fortunate if men would fight only for personal, selfish reasons! How many wars would cease if only those who had personal grievances picked up a gun? 

Consider a handful of wars in the last three hundred years and the men who comprised the armies on both sides, the men who participated in the carnage and suffered the wounds and loss of limbs and watched their comrades get blown apart and endured the misery of unsanitary trenches.

What did they have to gain from their suffering and hardship? What did the common British soldier have to gain as they charged up Bunker Hill in Boston to drive the colonists away? How did the average Frenchmen in Napoleon’s army benefit from invading Russia – when out of 600,000 a paltry 30,000 returned? For the typical Irish immigrant fresh off the boat who put on a Union uniform and was slaughtered at battles like Fredericksburg and the Seven Days Battles, what harm had been done to them when the Southern states seceded? For the British, French, German, and Russian troops mowed down in machine gun fire during World War I, what injustice had been done to them that inspired them to go to their deaths in the tens of thousands across No Man’s Land?

At the risk of over-generalizing, the answer is none.

Wars can only be fought when men are willing to fight and kill people whom they have no personal reason to kill. In fact, people are discouraged from killing others for personal reasons, even if those reasons are perfectly legitimate.

I first started to question the official, State-approved version of patriotism when I observed an unpleasant truth. A man who shoots a would-be murderer trying to kill his wife in their home is certainly justified. Yet come next Sunday you won’t see men shaking his hand at church or the pastor acknowledging him from the pulpit to the sound of thundering applause. He won’t be invited to the local school so kids can look at him with awe and admiration for protecting someone he loves dearly. No one will buy him drinks at the bar. No one will tell him he is a hero and give him medals or badges. He will not receive recognition, save for a story in the newspaper and the dubious inquiries of the local law enforcement agencies who may or may not investigate his actions to see if there were any possibilities he could have avoided killing a man breaking into his home.

Most importantly, no one will call this man patriotic for killing someone trying to murder his wife, an act for which he received no financial compensation.

Had he committed this same act while wearing a government military uniform, and he does it in the other man’s home, the situation would be reversed. He would be called a patriot who was “selflessly” serving his country – nevermind that he was paid while he was doing it.

The only logical explanation for this is because in the first scenario the man kills A) On his own initiative and authority B) For reasons that are purely personal, albeit entirely justified

Put another way, this man does not ask for permission to defend his home or his loved ones. He acts on his natural right to use violence to protect his property and those under his care.

The State would have it, however, that it is only patriotic to kill those whom the State has decreed must die and only when a citizen has been previously granted the authority to kill.

Therefore, patriotism must be understood, from a libertarian perspective, to oppose unjust war and to support the right of individual self-defense (though many who oppose wars are not patriotic, either; they’re against one war but for the next). If men practiced this form of patriotism, many wars would simply end because the only ones who wish to continue it are those who profit from it, and rarely if ever are they the ones who fight them.

To repeat it again, patriotism is the love of one’s country, not their government. 

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4 Responses to Re: Patriots and the Fourth of July

  1. SwittersB says:

    What is a ‘just’ war? I don’t disagree with much of anything you wrote…but when in your clinical estimation is it just for a country to defend itself or others? And, then does your rationale support that carnage? Not particularly disagreeing but didn’t see in the stream when does a nation have a duty and you a duty to fight?


    • The Question says:

      The short answer is yes, war is justified as a defensive measure under the just war theory defined by St. Thomas Aquinas here. Under his theory war is just and can only be considered just when a nation is attacked and there is no other recourse available. Additionally, the violence involved must be proportional and appropriate to the attack, i.e. if a country sends a small raiding party the defending nation cannot fire-bomb their cities or launch nuclear bombs in retaliation. The nation must also seek to end the war as quickly as possible and not drag it out. There are other philosophers and writers who defined just war, but I like Aquinas’ version. Unfortunately, most wars in history have failed at least one of those requirements.


  2. Pingback: What Libertarians Don’t “Get” About “American Sniper” | The Anarchist Notebook | Libertarian Anarchy

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