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Our Declining Patriotism

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Message Sam Amer
In reading the comments of some Iraq war veterans on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, you cannot escape the conclusion that American patriotism is in clear decline. The word "patriotism" comes from the Latin "patria," meaning "native land," which is in turn related to the Latin "pater," meaning "father." "Patriotism" thus invokes a paternal relationship. It embodies love and respect for your country, and the willingness to protect it, just as a father loves, respects and seeks to protect his children. Feelings of patriotism are therefore most intense when your country faces a common enemy. When we need to protect it from the invaders, along with our family, home, and possessions that are a part of it, we band together as one and fight to the death.

In contrast, it is hard to feel patriotism and risk dying for your country when the cause for doing so is not clear or defensible, and your country is not directly threatened. Since World War II, too many wars for too many causes, and for unclear and ill-defined purposes, have eroded feelings of patriotism in everyday Americans. This was the case when we attacked Iraq on the suspicion that it had weapons of mass destruction. The same would hold true if we attacked Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. And, today, even after nearly twelves years of war in Afghanistan, many Americans are still questioning why we got into that war in the first place.

Nowadays, Americans are not conscripted to serve in the military, nor do they volunteer to serve out of an abundance of patriotism. They join the armed forces mostly to get a job. Most of those fighting in Afghanistan right now would prefer to be at home, if only they could find a job and a better income there.

The decline in patriotism in America has grown more pronounced as many Americans have come to feel that their country has abandoned them. This is especially true of the lower classes, who are increasingly aware of the unfairness of the country's growing wealth inequality. As those who return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to poverty and joblessness in America frequently ask: What did we fight for? How can you love your country as you do your father, if it does nothing to help you find a job, secure a good life for your family, or enroll your kids in a good school?

Still, it is not only the poor or the disintegrating middle class in America that feels less patriotic; the top one percent feels the same. They think that the country is taxing their income unfairly and giving their money to those who have not worked for it or don't deserve it in the first place. In response, they are stashing their money in other countries to avoid paying taxes. This is not necessarily surprising. For many of the rich, all countries, including the United States, are only places to do business. Not much patriotism there.

The diminished patriotism in most developed countries can also be seen as an expression of modernity. In the modern world, tradition, religion, family and country are now defining us less. We are expected to be scientific, broad-minded and individualistic. Applying ancient rules of religion, family and country is now considered backward and underdeveloped. Our world is moving toward a more secular and universal liberal democracy.

One consequence of this trend is that it is now becoming less and less acceptable for a civilized country to declare war against another, no matter what the reason. As a result, even our historical military heroes are falling out of favor. Harry Patch, the last surviving soldier of WWI said, "War is organized murder, and nothing else. There is nothing heroic about killing for your country. When you come right down to it, enemy combatants are defending their country from the foreign American attackers." Today, many Americans feel the same way. As they see it, American soldiers are invading foreign countries primarily for the benefit of the oil companies and other multinational corporations. They do so because they are getting paid for it. They are, in fact, just mercenaries.

Most of the wars that America was, or is, involved in, do not generate national enthusiasm. Those in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all failed to stir nationalistic emotions in the American public. Because no important American national interest was really at stake, no one cared about these wars, except when the body bags came back. All the wars were like financial transactions, which involve little emotion. Moreover, unlike World War II, the end of hostilities did not engender feelings of pride and victory. It turned out that U.S. forces were better at initiating these wars than at winning them.

America's Global War on Terror has also proved irrelevant to most Americans. While the U.S. was expending trillions of dollars in a futile effort to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Awakening turned the Middle East upside down without organized warfare. In hindsight, the War on Terror now appears pointless.

It is probably still true that America is by far the greatest country on earth, partly because it projects ideals of freedom, liberty and human dignity. To remain great, however, we must hold on to those ideals and continue to promote them.     

In recent decades, America's inconsistency in pursuing its foundational ideals has diminished its citizens' feelings of loyalty and patriotism. America always talks about human rights and often bullies small countries over their human rights performance, especially when it is politically expedient. But when human rights concerns conflict with our interests, our ethical beliefs take a back seat nearly every time. The United States has plenty of allies whose human rights performance ranges from questionable to awful. Saudi Arabia and China are not-so-shining examples.

America's moral failings were especially brought to light with the events of  9/11. After three thousand Americans were killed, the government felt it had to take some action that proved it was still the toughest guy on the block. The trouble was, there was no country to blame or retaliate against, so we attacked Iraq, which had almost no connection to our loss. As a result, the war failed to stimulate our feelings of patriotism.

Worse yet, those who instigated that disastrous war were never disciplined or indicted. Nor were any of the senior officials in the Bush administration who authorized torture and renditions in either Iraq or Afghanistan ever faced with indictment or even serious investigation. And now, with the increased use of drones under Obama, and the frequent collateral killing of innocents, America may be coming close to losing totally both the dwindling patriotism of its citizens and its claim on moral authority in the world.

What does all this mean for the future? The United States better think long and hard about any future wars in which it chooses to be engaged. If our national interests are not directly threatened and our cause not clearly justified, the government may find it very hard to recruit young Americans who are patriotic enough to be willing to give their lives for their country, no matter what the salary. It may also find that the world at large, which is rapidly adopting its own values of liberal democracy, may well be far less tolerant of an America that seeks to dominate weaker nations for no other reason than its own self-interest.  

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Retired Pharmacologist with two masters and a Ph.D.
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