Letter to a Patriot

no flag

By Duncan Riley 



Because you love the flag, you think you believe in something. For you the flag is an ideal, a symbol of freedom baptized with the blood of patriots. The nation is your church, and the State your altar. But, in truth, the flag is nothing more than a piece of a cloth, a rag that waves over every prison and barracks that mars this earth. You say the flag is a symbol of love, yet it drives you to deny the humanity of anyone who refuses to accept its dominion. You call it a bringer of peace even as it is raised, dripping with the blood of innocents, as a banner of war. The flag has a strange power indeed, as it transforms the most fervent devotees of peace and love into the most strident defenders of atrocity and unrestrained hatred. The flag is nothing but a myriad of contradictions, a hideous and meaningless abstraction, behind which lie countless corpses, their blood having bought that abstraction another few decades of vitality. Your love of the flag is in reality nothing more than the worst sort of nihilism, the nihilism that offers up whole nations for sacrifice at your false altar.

You protest that our enemies are dangerous, that they must be stopped. Who are these enemies? Children in schools? Patients in hospitals? Peasants in the fields? Are these normal, innocent people, who just like us want nothing more than to live their lives in peace and justice, really so great a threat as to justify the destruction we will bring upon them? Perhaps the greatest cruelty of war is that it is not the generals and politicians who pay its price, but the ordinary working people whose homes are bombed, whose cities are leveled and whose lives are torn up by the ambitions of the powerful. The “enemy” is nothing more than another murderous abstraction, serving to obfuscate the hundreds of thousands of human beings that your flag will smother.

You claim that we must defend ourselves against aggression. Tell me, what meaning do words like “defense,” and “aggression,” have in a world of imperialism and perpetual war? The game that is being played today is the same game that the British and French were playing when they signed the Sykes-Picot agreement, the same that the British and Americans were playing when they ousted Mossadegh, and the very same game that the United States has been playing across the entire world for decades. It is that age-old game of the great powers, the dance of alliances and artillery that has reaped so much innocent blood across the centuries.  In a world such as this, the aggressors are those who created this game, the politicians, generals, and businessmen in North America and Europe who profit from it, not the peasants and workers who pay for it.

You still have one argument left, that age old favorite of the apologists of injustice – we may have our problems, but they are worse. History screams in protest against the absurdity of this dichotomy. What moral superiority can the torturers of Abu Ghraib and Bagram claim? I believe I speak for a whole generation when I say that the images of human beings held upon leashes by uniformed arms, of hands bound with electrical wire and heads forced into black hoods, of all the violence and injustice that a flag can hide, have left me with no doubt as to the true quality of our civilization. After centuries of war, torture, and murder, it is clear enough that empires, no matter how liberal their political structure, are nothing more than edifices of oppression and violence, held up by bayonets and bureaucrats, and built over countless unmarked graves. The morality of the colonizers thus died long ago, when Columbus’s boot first trod upon Hispaniola, and when the first slave ship docked in a Virginian harbor.

Enough now with your abstractions, whether flags, nations, or States. Though the generals and politicians may justify their fratricidal wars with words like progress, liberty, and peace, people are not fed with bombs, bullets do not bring freedom, and doves do not nest in shell craters. The only real struggle, the only one that has any chance of transforming the world, is not the war which pits the oppressed against one another in the service of the oppressors, but the revolt of the oppressed against oppressors in the defense of a universal human dignity. And it is to this struggle that we must all dedicate our efforts today, throwing ourselves into the arena of history and fighting alongside and among the oppressed until empires, borders, and armies all vanish from the earth.

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