The following essay is an excerpt from Zinn’s forthcoming book, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (City Lights Books, ISBN 0-87286-475-8, www.citylights.com)
In celebration of the 4th of July there will be many speeches about the young people who â€œdied for their country.â€ Let’s be honest about war. Those who gave their lives did not die for their country, as they were led to believe but 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.
According to the Declaration of Independenceâ€”the fundamental document of democracyâ€”governments are artificial creations, established by the people, â€œderiving their just powers from the consent of the governed,â€ and charged by the people to ensure the equal right of all to â€œlife, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.â€ Furthermore, as the Declaration says, â€œwhenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.â€
It is the country that is primaryâ€”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 are pure and moral (â€œOperation Just Causeâ€ was the invasion of Panama and â€œOperation Iraqi Freedomâ€ 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 â€œtraitorâ€ for criticizing the U.S. invasion of the Philippines, derided what he called â€œmonarchical patriotism.â€ He said: â€œThe gospel of the monarchical patriotism is: â€˜The King can do no wrong.â€™ We have adopted it with all its servility, with an unimportant change in the wording: â€˜Our country, right or wrong!â€™ We have thrown away the most valuable asset we hadâ€”the individualâ€™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, Patriotism.â€
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 are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan are not dying for their country, they are dying for their government. They are dying for Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. And yes, 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 nationâ€™s wealth to pay for the machines of death. As of July 4, 2006, more than 2,500 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq, more than 8,500 maimed or injured.
With the war in Iraq long delcared a â€œMission Accomplished,â€ shall we revel in American military power andâ€”against the history of modern empiresâ€”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, â€œwestward expansionâ€â€”a euphemism for the annihilation or expulsion of the Indian tribes inhabiting the continent, all in the name of â€œprogressâ€ and â€œcivilization.â€ 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 â€œthe American Century,â€ in which this country would organize the world â€œas we see fit.â€ 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 Bushâ€™s boast that the United States will bring democracy to Iraq. Should Americans welcome the expansion of the nationâ€™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 tradeâ€”some call it â€œglobalizationâ€â€”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.