Howard Zinn: Put Away the Flags
- Put Away the Flags
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive Magazine
On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its
symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its
insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.
Is not nationalism that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so
fierce it engenders mass murder one of the great evils of our time,
along with racism, along with religious hatred?
These ways of thinking cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from
childhood on have been useful to those in power, and deadly for
those out of power.
National spirit can be benign in a country that is small and lacking
both in military power and a hunger for expansion (Switzerland,
Norway, Costa Rica and many more). But in a nation like ours huge,
possessing thousands of weapons of mass destruction what might have
been harmless pride becomes an arrogant nationalism dangerous to
others and to ourselves.
Our citizenry has been brought up to see our nation as different from
others, an exception in the world, uniquely moral, expanding into
other lands in order to bring civilization, liberty, democracy.
That self-deception started early.
When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in
Massachusetts Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war
with the Pequot Indians. The killing of Indians was seen as approved
by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. The Puritans
cited one of the Psalms, which says: "Ask of me, and I shall give
thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of
the Earth for thy possession."
When the English set fire to a Pequot village and massacred men, women
and children, the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather said: "It was
supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell
On the eve of the Mexican War, an American journalist declared it our
"Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence."
After the invasion of Mexico began, The New York Herald announced: "We
believe it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country."
It was always supposedly for benign purposes that our country went to
We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans, and went to war in the
Philippines shortly after, as President McKinley put it, "to civilize
and Christianize" the Filipino people.
As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least
600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our
secretary of war, was saying: "The American soldier is different from
all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is
the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of
peace and happiness."
We see in Iraq that our soldiers are not different. They have, perhaps
against their better nature, killed thousands of Iraq civilians. And
some soldiers have shown themselves capable of brutality, of torture.
Yet they are victims, too, of our government's lies.
How many times have we heard President Bush tell the troops that if
they die, if they return without arms or legs, or blinded, it is for
"liberty," for "democracy"?
One of the effects of nationalist thinking is a loss of a sense of
proportion. The killing of 2,300 people at Pearl Harbor becomes the
justification for killing 240,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The
killing of 3,000 people on Sept. 11 becomes the justification for
killing tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And nationalism is given a special virulence when it is said to be
blessed by Providence. Today we have a president, invading two
countries in four years, who announced on the campaign trail in 2004
that God speaks through him.
We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally
superior to, the other imperial powers of world history.
We need to assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one
Howard Zinn, a World War II bombardier, is the author of the
best-selling "A People's History of the United States" (Perennial
Classics, 2003, latest edition). This piece was distributed by the
Progressive Media Project.
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