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pointless patriotism

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I wrote the following on Saturday with a view to sending it to Jerry Pournelle, but even I think it’s a bit much in this form. I might cut it down to size first. It’s in response to a Robert Heinlein essay he reproduced, in full, on his Mail page last week. Most of the essay can be found here as well. I suggest reading the essay before my reply, of course.

I enjoyed reading Robert Heinlein’s speech transcript on the topic of patriotism. For an all-American good ol’ boy such as Heinlein, who served his country and enjoyed the benefits of being American, it must have appeared simple. In contrast, I hope you won’t object if I quickly outline my own background, and some of the questions it raises with regards to nationality and patriotism.

I was born in Scotland, where I lived until nearly 7, but I haven’t lived there since. I grew up in South Africa, went to school there, and was nearly drafted into the army, despite the fact that I held a British passport. I ended up “serving my country” by playing the bagpipes, which had nothing to do with my Scots background, actually. I moved back to the UK in 1991, spending 8 years in London. In late 1999 I moved to Dublin, Ireland, to take up a position with a major computer company.

Had I entered the South African army, I might have ended up fighting in Angola, prolonging the civil war, which only ended this year. Since I am not South African, do you blame me for “draft-dodging” an unjust war? Can you say the same about those who fought, or not, in Vietnam? Now that I live in Ireland, what would happen if war broke out? I have no idea what I would do in such a situation, since I feel little patriotic loyalty to any of places I have ever lived in.

If people ask me where I’m from, I say Scotland, since a) it’s technically true, b) it’s fashionable, c) everyone is from somewhere, and d) everyone laughs if you call yourself “a citizen of the world”. I hardly know anything about modern Scotland, and what I do know is not flattering (alcohol, drugs, American tourists). Its history is a bit more encouraging.

  • Would I want to live there? No, I’d rather live in Canada or the USA, or even London.
  • Would I fight for Scotland if it went to war with England? Perhaps, if I thought it was just.
  • Would I fight for Britain against Europe or others (e.g. Argentina)? They would have to catch me first.
  • Would I fight for Europe or NATO against, say, China? No, since I have no loyalty to Europe or any grudge against China.
  • Would I fight for Earth against aliens from Mars? Probably, since humanity would be under immediate threat, and such a war would surely find me anyway.

Patriotism, as expressed by the saying “my country, right or wrong”, makes the assumption that you have a country, and that it’s worth fighting for. The thing is: a country’s morals are expressed by its actions, as ordered by those in power. How many US troops in Vietnam were happy with President Johnson, but not with President Nixon, and how does that relate to the way the Vietnam War ended?

In Britain in 1982, the general public supported the Falklands War, as long as professional soldiers were doing the fighting thousands of miles away. Surveys at the time indicated that relatively few people were interested in volunteering, and had conscription been required, support would probably have vanished, much as it did towards the end of the Vietnam war. (The Falklands War ended 20 years ago last month, an anniversary that went almost unmarked in Britain.)

The example given at the end of Heinlein’s speech, of the couple and the stranger killed by a train, might elsewhere be called altruism. I agree with Heinlein that that is a higher moral imperative than the duty to fight for oneself or one’s family, but I can not agree that “country” fits easily into the “moral hierarchy”, or that patriotism is always justified. My country, assuming I have one, can be wrong, because the people who control its (and my) actions can be weak and unworthy of respect.


Written by brian t

July 8, 2002 at 7:58 am

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