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dissent is patriotic

May 29, 2012

An excellent commentary, in my opinion, on the ‘cheap patriotism’ of the mainstream media and how the use of the word ‘hero’ is used to “shut down real debate about the merits of what exactly it is that all those heroes are doing out there”:

Pundits, Platitudes, and Patriotism: War Heroes and Their Enemies

Coincidentally, a friend of mine was called an “unpatriotic communist” today for simply saying that she wasn’t a fan of war. It’s kind of a bizarre how critical our society can be towards anyone advocating or supporting nonviolence when you think about it, from the court of popular opinion to the court of law.

Back in 1918, for example, Eugene Debs (one of the greatest Americans to ever have lived, in my opinion) was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for an anti-war speech he gave in Canton, Ohio—a sentence the Supreme Court upheld upon appeal, ruling that it had the “intention and effect of obstructing the draft and recruitment for the war [i.e., WWI],” something made illegal under the Espionage Act of 1917.

For my own part, I respect the men and women who join the military and place their lives in danger for the sake of others despite my own philosophical disagreements; and I respect the hellish things that many of them are forced to endure in the course of their service, as well as the sacrifice of those who lose their lives while serving. I also have a great deal of compassion for those who choose to serve their country, but end up regretting their decision by doing things that later weighs their conscience down, such as was the case with Howard Zinn, a WWII vet and political activist, and the realization of what he did as a bombardier in WW II.

But at the same time, I’m critical of war and the reasons nations go to war; and I have a different perspective than most on the effectiveness of nonviolent solutions to war and violence in general. Just because we have noble intentions doesn’t mean that we’ll always end up doing noble things. In fact, one of the main things that originally attracted me to Buddhism was its attitude towards violence, e.g.:

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels. (Dhp 1.3-6).


Killing, you gain
your killer.
Conquering, you gain one
who will conquer you;
insulting, insult;
harassing, harassment.

And so, through the cycle of action,
he who has plundered
gets plundered in turn. (SN 3.15)

I think Howard Zinn came to a similar understanding — that war can’t end war, that violence can’t end violence — from his experiences in WWII; an idea which he expressed in part of a speech he gave in 2006:

I was talking to my barber the other day, because we always discuss world politics. And he’s totally politically unpredictable, as most barbers are, you see. He said, “Howard,” he said, “you know, you and I disagree on many things, but on one thing we agree: war solves nothing.” And I thought, “Yeah.” It’s not hard for people to grasp that.

And there again, history is useful. We’ve had a history of war after war after war after war. What have they solved? What have they done? Even World War II, the “good war,” the war in which I volunteered, the war in which I dropped bombs, the war after which, you know, I received a letter from General Marshall, general of generals, a letter addressed personally to me, and to 16 million others, in which he said, “We’ve won the war. It will be a new world.” Well, of course, it wasn’t a new world. It hasn’t been a new world. War after war after war.

There are certain — I came out of that war, the war in which I had volunteered, the war in which I was an enthusiastic bombardier, I came out of that war with certain ideas, which just developed gradually at the end of the war, ideas about war. One, that war corrupts everybody who engages in it. War poisons everybody who engages in it. You start off as the good guys, as we did in World War II. They’re the bad guys. They’re the fascists. What could be worse? So, they’re the bad guys, we’re the good guys. And as the war goes on, the good guys begin behaving like the bad guys. You can trace this back to the Peloponnesian War. You can trace it back to the good guy, the Athenians, and the bad guys, the Spartans. And after a while, the Athenians become ruthless and cruel, like the Spartans.

And we did that in World War II. We, after Hitler committed his atrocities, we committed our atrocities. You know, our killing of 600,000 civilians in Japan, our killing of probably an equal number of civilians in Germany. These, they weren’t Hitler, they weren’t Tojo. They weren’t — no, they were just ordinary people, like we are ordinary people living in a country that is a marauding country, and they were living in countries that were marauding countries, and they were caught up in whatever it was and afraid to speak up. And I don’t know, I came to the conclusion, yes, war poisons everybody.

When it comes to the subject of war, I think we (especially us Buddhists) should always be on guard so that we don’t allow ourselves be so blinded by our patriotism and the idealization of war heroes that we fall into the trap of blindly supporting militarism and nationalism, or attacking anyone who happens to have a different point of view.

People can call me all the names they want, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to get me to uncritically support war and not speak out against the ‘collateral damage’ war inevitably leaves in its wake. As Howard Zinn once said, “While some people think that dissent is unpatriotic, I would argue that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. In fact, if patriotism means being true to the principles for which your country is supposed to stand, then certainly the right to dissent is one of those principles. And if we’re exercising that right to dissent, it’s a patriotic act.”


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