Dying for the Government
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine,
Our government has declared 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 whom there
have been many, many more.
I will mourn the Iraqi children, not just
those who are dead, but those who have been blinded, crippled,
disfigured, or traumatized. We have not been given in the American
media (we would need to read the foreign press) a full picture
of the human suffering caused by our bombing.
We got 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, replied: "That
is really not a matter I am terribly interested in."
As a patriot, contemplating the dead GIs,
I could comfort myself (as, understandably, their families do)
with the thought: "They died for their country." But
I would be Iying to myself.
Those who died in this war did not die
for their country. They died for their government. They died for
Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. And yes, they died for the greed
of the oil cartels, for the expansion of the American empire,
for the political ambitions of the President. They died to cover
up the theft of the nation's wealth to pay for the machines of
The distinction between dying for your
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."
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 always claiming
that its motives a 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 almost always a breaking of the promise. It does not enable
the pursuit of happiness but brings despair and grief.
Mark Twain, having bee called a "traitor"
for criticizing the U.S. invasion of the Philippines, derided
what he called "monarchical patriotism." H 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 right to oppose
both flag and country when he believed then to be in the wrong.
We have thrown it away; and with it, al 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
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 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?
I suggest that a patriotic American who
cares for his or her country might act on behalf of a different
vision. Instead of being feared for our military prowess, we should
want to be respected for our dedication to human rights.
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, the author of '`A Peoples
History of the United States," is a columnist for The Progressive.
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