Where's the Gold?
Patriotism is the devoted love and support of one’s country, national loyalty. The term often brings to mind people directly involved with the defense of a nation, namely military service members. Patriotism, however, can take many other forms other than serving in the military. Diplomats, teachers, first responders, health caregivers, and so many more all exemplify patriotism in the many forms of good they do in service of their communities.
A related concept, nationalism, is the policy or doctrine of asserting the interests of one’s own nation viewed as separate from the interests of other nations or the common interests of all nations. In short, nationalism is a kind of excessive, aggressive, self-serving patriotism.
Patriotism, when it leads to constructive action, is a positive, edifying, and unifying phenomenon. Nationalism, on the other hand, has been and is one of the most destructive forces unleashed by the human community. Lloyd Kramer, author of the recent book Nationalism in Europe and America, writes: "Nationalism often encourages fears of all kinds of other people: fears of other religions or races or cultures or ethnic groups or homosexuals. This fear can be mobilized for violence and scapegoating. It can lead people to feel aggrieved and constantly at risk." In short, nationalism, particularly extreme nationalism, fosters a them-and-us mentality where the other is presumed to be an enemy that threatens one’s well-being. Nationalism is an inherently self-serving attitude which ascribes to one’s own nation a value higher than any other. Anything perceived as a threat must be quashed and controlled.
The history of war is largely the history of nationalism. Even before the advent of the nation-state, wars have generally been fought to acquire and secure advantages for one’s own clan or ethnic group. Political leaders make the decisions about going to war, but an ideology is needed to recruit willing participants.
A working paper (2017) of the non-partisan National Bureau of Economic Research includes: “Guns are not enough to win wars; one also needs motivated soldiers. Rulers promote nationalism to motivate citizens from reluctant subject populations.” As a Marine officer in Vietnam, I found two oppositional attitudes among my comrades-in-arms. Those who linked our presence there to U.S. nationalistic endeavors were motivated and felt justified in their participation. Those who were there doing their duty but not connecting it to nationalistic fervor are described by what one of the Marines stated in Karl Marlantes’ book, Matterhorn: “Just tell me where the gold is. . . gold, the freaking gold, or the oil, or uranium. Something . . . something out there for us to be here. Just anything, then I’d understand it. Just some freaking gold so it all made sense.”
All of the above brings to mind the questions: Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t people see that people are just people regardless of skin color, ethnicity, religion, or regional differences? Why don’t national leaders (supported by the citizenry) recognize and act on the fact that cooperation instead of competition is better for everyone overall? Why do people allow the horrors of war win out over the mutual benefit of peace?
The legendary Hatfields (West Virginia) and McCoys (Kentucky) were neighbors living on opposite sides of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River. They engaged in a half-century feud which took the lives of sixty family members before ending in an eventual truce. Imagine a nationalistic mindset on that level . . . neighbor against neighbor or neighborhood against neighborhood or town against town. The Hatfield/McCoy death toll could rise exponentially, as it does unimaginably (to those who haven’t experienced it) in war between nations. Those two American families came to realize how destructive the feud was to both sides, and how much more pleasant life became when they got to a handshake which affirmed the shared value of everybody.
I’ve been in a couple dozen countries all around the planet. What became more and more obvious to me was that people are people. Everywhere. And what people everywhere yearn for is peace and security where they can have enough to eat, shelter, medical care, etc. Norwegians, Italians, Russians, South Africans, Nepalis, Japanese, New Zealanders, Samoans, Americans . . . no one is more or less valuable or worthwhile than another. It’s only as more people – particularly political leaders – act on this realization that the world – the WHOLE world – will be more secure and at peace as we care for one another.