Recently, I came across a post on Facebook that reminded me of the Cold War era in the 1960s. The caption read: “Biggest question I ask people who say bad things about this country. Why are you still living here?” I dare say there are millions of Americans who share this FB “friend’s” perspective. It is a very dangerous perspective, especially in these times. But let me try to debunk this sentiment, to show that it is totally absurd, that it has led us to unnecessary invasions and wars. This “my country right or wrong” position demonstrates the confusion between supporting our troops – you know, the boy and girl next door who joined the military looking for opportunity – and the decisions made by our military and political leaders in Washington, DC. That such decisions are made by real people, often with hidden or even hideous agendas, and not the “country” itself, is totally lost on people such as the person who wrote this Facebook comment.
Countries don’t take us to war. Individuals making decisions do. To begin with, there are no countries. Nor are there any states, cities, sports teams, or schools. The list of “false” institutions goes on almost ad infinitum. Scientifically speaking, we observe individuals, their behavior, and the product of their interactions or what sociologists and anthropologists call material culture. When an abstract concept, for example, the name “Canada,” is formulated it’s an abstract concept. Or, as general semanticists argue, “the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory.”
But, semanticists claim, there is a natural human tendency to reify the abstract concept, to treat it as if it had a life or reality of its own. The name of a country that’s reified transcends the population, even the territory of the “country” itself. This cognitive process explains why it was easy for American soldiers to say during the Vietnam War era that “we had to destroy a village to save it.” The belief many Americans still have is that “America” won the Vietnam War because “America” killed more Vietnamese than the Vietnamese killed Americans. (Of course many Americans would prefer not to discuss that war because there was no decisive political victory, i.e. “America” seems to have lost, which to them means that they lost, and Americans, i.e. they, are not losers!)
The subject of reification is particularly important these days. Consider the recently publicized case of the Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was held prisoner (or hostage, depending on whether you see Islamic jihadists as the “enemy” or as “terrorists”) for five years in Afghanistan. After President Obama secured his release by trading five Al-Qaeda prisoners from Guantanamo, Sgt. Bergdahl was vilified by right wing politicians and much of the mainstream press for being a deserter. He had allegedly denounced the American involvement in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as doing more harm than good to the people of that region, of unnecessarily killing them and causing untold suffering.
As a result, Bergdahl was accused of betraying his country. He was certainly not worth the swap of five terrorist leaders for one American deserter/traitor, the public has been told by many politicians, including so-called liberal Democrats.
But how can one betray one’s country when countries don’t really exist? For that matter, how can one fight for his/her country when countries are only figments of the imagination, so to speak, abstract concepts in the mind? Bergdahl was only criticizing policy- and decision-makers who were ultimately responsible for the war against the “insurgents, the “terrorists,” who just happened to be defending their own homes, families, and property against an invading force. Wouldn’t Americans become insurgents if, say, Iceland tried to take over our cities, homes, churches, schools?
Patriotism is based on the reification of country. A citizen (of any “country”) is supposed to love his country and support his country in time of war, no matter what the reason. Now, it is surely one thing to defend one’s “country,” or more accurately one’s friends, family, neighbors from any invasion, foreign or domestic. To fight, even to die, in the process, just as the fighters in the French Resistance did in World War II is not the consequence of reification. It’s a form of humanitarianism.
But reification of country does not allow one to make that distinction. Reification does not allow one to distinguish between an Ed Snowden or Bradley Manning and the helicopter gunners who killed unarmed civilians in Iraq. The latter are regarded as the patriotic heroes precisely because they killed the “enemy” in a combat zone (although that’s subject to argument) and didn’t question their orders to do so. “Enemies” only exist if they are people from a “country” that one’s own country–the decision-makers, that is–has decided to fight.
A major question for those of us in academia who generally have a humanitarian rather than a patriotic bias is: how to prevent reification of country, or anything else for that matter. What is the inoculation for this “disease” of consciousness? A partial solution is to stop indoctrinating children in school with patriotic songs and pledges of allegiance.
Patriotism in the true sense of the word means supporting and defending people as individuals against inhumane/hostile attacks and invasions. You don’t have to wrap yourself in the flag to do so. Nor should you.
Richard Sahn is a professor of sociology and a Contrary Perspective regular.