The Universal Notebook: Peace is more than patriotic

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Saw a bumper sticker the other day that had a peace symbol on it and the words “Footprint of the American Chicken.”  The message was pretty clear: War is patriotic, peace is cowardice.

Unfortunately, patriotism in this country has become misidentified with militarism and nationalism. My country right or wrong. Might makes right.

True patriotism, on the other hand, consists in loving your country enough to insist that it act honorably and nobly even in a dishonest and ignoble world. You want your country to do the right thing and when it doesn’t you are duty bound to say so. That is love of country, not blind allegiance to a flag or following orders unquestioningly.

In an age of endless conflict, when American troops are ordered into harm’s way for increasingly vague and suspect reasons, peace is far more patriotic than war.

Most Americans now agree that the best way to “Support Our Troops” is to bring them home. The reason Ron Paul had so much support among the U.S. military is that he was the candidate least likely to lightly commit them to battle. I will likely still vote to re-elect President Obama, but I will do so with far less enthusiasm now that he has committed the U.S. to maintaining a presence in Afghanistan until at least 2024.

(Note to Republicans: Obama is not as liberal as you seem to think he is.)

Our decades-long commitment to Afghanistan is supposedly justified by the fact that the 9/11 terrorists once trained there. Odd, though, that the fact the 9/11 terrorists were all Saudi Arabians never seemed to interest anyone in power.

Yes, killing 3,000 civilians in a sneak attack was certainly a horrible, indefensible thing to do. But if you’re tempted to get holier-than-thou about terrorist attacks, ask yourself about U.S. and British bombers killing 25,000 civilians in the Dresden Firebombing in February 1945. And what about the 166,000 civilians in Hiroshima and the 80,000 in Nagasaki who died when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs in August 1945? Those acts of extreme violence were apparently justified by the fact that Germany and Japan started World War II, but killing civilians is never justified. And, anyway, aren’t we supposed to be the good guys?

Apropos of dropping the atomic bomb, the peace symbol, designed in 1958, is the overlay of the semaphore signals for N (two arms extended down and out) and D (one arm straight up, one straight down), standing for Nuclear Disarmament. Any child who was ever read Dr. Seuss’s “Butter Battle Book” understands that nuclear war is perfectly absurd, that escalation of hostilities leads nowhere but annihilation. Mutual assured destruction.

Dropping bombs is a morally dubious act, even in wartime. When those bombs are dropped on civilians, it is surely immoral. When those bombs are filled with napalm, it is even worse than that.

One of the images of horror that helped to end the Vietnam War was Nick Ut’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize photograph of little Vietnamese children fleeing down a road in pain and terror as South Vietnamese pilots mistakenly dropped American-made napalm on them. Phan Thi Kim Phuc, then the naked 9-year-old little girl at the center of the photograph, is now a Canadian citizen and humanitarian activist. Her message to the world is not one of war and retaliation, but of peace and forgiveness.

“Forgiveness made me free from hatred,” Kim Phuc explained in a 2008 NPR interview. “I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days, but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?”

In the case of the Vietnam War, peace activists, by helping to cut short an interminable, unwinnable war, clearly saved tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives. If we had a more active and committed peace movement today, fewer people would die in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Patriotism is speaking truth to power – not saber-rattling, not flag-waving, not tough talk, and certainly not demeaning people who have the moral courage to work for peace. Blessed are the peacemakers.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.