Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Living with Lewis: Patriotism

Continuing Chaos in Libya, Summer 2011, photo via MSNBC

As someone who studies ethnic conflict, I love Lewis' thoughts on patriotism and its use as a tool to motivate action and sacrifice on behalf of one's country:
"For a long time yet, or perhaps forever, nations will live in danger. Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only by presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for 'their country' they must be made to feel that they are sending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country's cause was just; but it was still their country's cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral ground- wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine- I become insufferable. The pretence that when England's cause is just we are on England's side- as some neutral Don Quixote might be- for that reason alone, is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it. If our country's cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world" (29).
Lewis hits right at the heart of so many modern conflicts: they become in our minds and our media a war of good against evil. And we, of course, support the side of the good. But conflict cannot be reduced down to this binary. For even if some on the other side could really be called evil, those beneath them, those they have drafted, those they have deceived, those they have pressed into service....they are not evil. And war is a dirty, destructive, terrifying, appalling beast. It might be pitched as a fight of good and evil at first, but by the end, it will be nothing but darkness. And few truly take up arms for wholesome motives anyway. Most conflicts the US has entered in the past decades have been pitched as humanitarian or liberation ventures, but these supposed motives of freedom and justice are driven by a far more pragmatic, profitable, and amoral (or even immoral) motive underneath, and the destruction caused perhaps outweighs whatever freedom or justice is accomplished anyways. High moral concepts are cold consolation to a mother whose son never came home.

So the heart of the message is this: be careful. It is easy to get caught up in the noble myth of war. Patriotism is not in itself wrong by any stretch of the imagination. Lewis writes (citing Chesterton), "A man's reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because he 'could not even begin' to enumerate all the things he would miss" (23). Love of home is natural and healthy and creates sometimes even a healthy respect for others: "How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?" (24). I would agree with Lewis though that is important to differentiate this love for our homes and our way of life from a feeling of superiority and that our cause is the cause of God because then we are entering a very dangerous realm where mythic wars quickly turn into infernos that indiscriminately destroy all life.

For more on the myth of war and the dangers therein, I highly recommend Chris Hedges' book, War is a Force that Give Us Meaning. It's a heavy, but incredible, read.

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