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Disentangling the Antiwar Movement from the American Flag

by Free Society Collective (central Vermont) Monday, Feb. 17, 2003 at 9:07 AM

(A downloadable PDF version of this essay is available at; feel free to copy and distribute this 8.5 x 11, 2- sided flyer)

Disentangling the Antiwar Movement

from the American Flag

"Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most

indubitable meaning is nothing but an instrument

for the attainment of the government's ambitious

and mercenary aims, and a renunciation of human

dignity, common sense, and conscience by the

governed, and a slavish submission to those who

hold power. That is what is really preached

wherever patriotism is championed. Patriotism is


-- Leo Tolstoy

"Peace is the continuation of war by other


-- Hannah Arendt

Since September 11, 2001, many antiwar activists

in the United States have wrapped their dissent

in the American flag. In an increasingly

constrictive political climate, they are anxious

to find ways to appear more legitimate. For some,

carrying the flag celebrates the Bill of Rights,

particularly the rights to free speech and public

assembly. For others, it recalls foundational

events for this country such as the Boston Tea

Party and American Revolution that symbolize the

struggle against the tyranny of colonial rule.

People of conscience raise the stars and stripes

to assert that "peace is patriotic," and that

they are the real Americans. The U.S. government,

by contrast, claims to be waging war in order to

uphold America's core values, or as Bush puts it,

precisely because "we are a peace-loving


Who will prevail in this contest to define the

true patriots?

It is vital to ensure that U.S. opposition is

clearly visible alongside the strength and

solidarity of antiwar demonstrations around the

globe. As activists in the United States, we need

to distinguish our views from the actions and

aims of "our" government, and build a strong

movement. But we can only do that if our

arguments against war are in line with our


The stark fact is that dissenters, no matter how

noble, do not get to determine the meaning of

patriotism. Although popular conceptions of U.S.

history suggest that patriotism is about freedom,

democracy, and creating a better world, in

reality it has largely been used by the state to

thwart the realization of these ideals.

Patriotism, in essence, asks citizens to put

aside their concerns and disagreements with the

government, and to get behind the sentiment of

"my country, right or wrong."

Historically, patriotism was used in the 1920s to

back up efforts to deport "undesirables" during

the Red scare. Later, during the time of the

Second World War, it justified interning Japanese

Americans in camps on U.S. soil. In the 1950s,

patriotism was used to repress the Left through

such vehicles as the House Un-American Activities

Committee, and during the Vietnam War period, to

silence resistance through slogans such as "love

it or leave it." Patriotism has been employed to

rationalize military excursions and state-

sponsored violence, from the invasion of Grenada

and Panama to illegally arming the Nicaraguan


Patriotism, in the past and present, is

predominantly defined by those in power to

bolster support for their agendas. Consider the

ubiquity of American flags since 9-11.

Immediately after the tragedy, millions of

Americans expressed their sadness and solidarity

with the families of the deceased in a variety of

ways, from displaying wreaths and firefighters'

helmets to lighting candles. Shortly thereafter,

Bush called for a day of prayer and for Americans

to fly their country's flag. While some had

turned to the flag prior to Bush's urging, the

change was unmistakable after his plea. Alternate

expressions of mourning persisted, yet the

American flag became the main indication of one's

grief. It was soon difficult to find a house,

automobile, or public space unadorned with the

stars and stripes.

As the Bush administration rapidly manipulated

grief into retribution, the meaning of this

powerful symbol also shifted. Today, the same

flags flown after September 11 stand for much

more than sorrow. The flag has largely become

representative of unquestioning allegiance to

national security, a faith in government, and a

willingness to strike at unknown enemies. This

process of redefining patriotism facilitates the

state's ability to exercise power for its own


For more than a year, the Bush administration has

been crafting a spurious dichotomy between

patriotism and terrorism. Having initiated an

unending and ill-defined "war against terror,"

the U.S. government claims free license to do

whatever it wishes. Anything that promotes

"security" for America--such as eroding civil

liberties, dramatically increasing the military

budget, or insisting on a war on Iraq--is now

seen as justifiable.

In the name of patriotism, the Bush

administration devised the overtly racist policy

of registering citizens whose national heritage

is Middle Eastern. The aptly named USA PATRIOT

Act limits movement across borders, forces

registration of foreign-born citizens, vastly

expands investigative powers even where no crime

is alleged, and labels dissenters as potential

"terrorists." To question or oppose these

policies is deemed unpatriotic, and disagreement

is consequently silenced. What politician, after

all, would have willingly chosen to vote against

a piece of legislation with this acronym and risk

being seen as un-American? And now, a second

PATRIOT Act is in the works to further undo the

freedoms that the government is purportedly

marshaling its troops to protect.

Not only does the attempt to articulate dissent

in the language of patriotism take on meanings

that are out of our control, it also rings of

parochialism in an increasingly interdependent

and global world. Such language establishes a

false distinction between "us" and "them." To

return to September 11, victims from the twin

towers included citizens of nearly every country.

Almost more than any single event in recent

memory, it should have been understood as a

global trauma, binding numerous peoples and

cultures in a shared grief. Yet once the American

flags went up in large numbers, 9-11 became re-

scripted as a national tragedy by those in power.

"Good" America was now compelled to fight a

shadowy "evil," thus laying the groundwork for

future conflict and wars.

If appeals to patriotism are actually counter to

the aims of even the most modest antiwar

position, the other half of the equation in

"peace is patriotic" proves to be just as

inadequate. To merely object to a war against

Iraq suggests that there has been peace all

along, even though the United States and Britain

have been bombing Iraq repeatedly since the 1991

Gulf War. More than a million Iraqi children have

already died at the hands of the U.S.-driven UN

economic embargo against Iraq, according to the

World Health Organization. Such "peacetime"

practices demand a movement concerned with more

than just preventing a U.S. invasion and

subsequent military occupation. As antiwar

demonstrators in Munich recently declared, "Your

war kills off what your peace leaves standing."

The Bush administration speaks of peace too, but

as the ultimate justification for war, much in

the same way that it contemplates using nuclear

weapons in Iraq to free the world from the

dangers of weapons of mass destruction. Whether

in the form of overt military action or less

direct interventions, U.S. foreign policy

practices a peace that is really war, but by

other methods. The goal today appears to be

nothing less than increasing America's dominance

on a global scale in order for a tiny elite to

have disproportionate political and economic


In the end, the attempt to mainstream dissent

through claims of "patriotism" or "peace"

unwittingly ties our nascent antiwar movement to

the policies and institutions that create war.

These two words are inextricably bound to the

actions of the state, whether we agree with them

or not. At a time when the United States has

become thoroughly unilateralist, it is

disconcerting that many antiwar activists would

still focus on appeals to the U.S. government,

which has made it perfectly clear that it will

not be constrained by the United Nations, much

less world opinion. Why would this same

government be any more responsive to its own


As part of this unilateralism, Bush has demanded

a regime change in Iraq and is posturing against

North Korea. Many activists, in turn, have called

for a "regime change at home." While both the

Iraqi and U.S. regimes are impediments to a free

and safer world, a change of leadership in these

two specific cases will not alter the conditions

that give rise to systemic violence in both

societies. Nor are these problems exclusive to

Iraq and the United States. In dictatorships or

nation-states, when the few attempt to govern the

many, coercion--either through warfare or subtler

methods--is the only recourse to sustain

centralized power. Statecraft of any kind is not

the answer. We need a reconstruction of society

that places power in accountable, directly

democratic institutions instead.

To say that "peace is patriotic" ultimately

buries demands for genuine freedom for all

beneath a misplaced desire for legitimacy. If we

want to invoke the liberatory dimensions of U.S.

history, however limited by their own times, then

let's look to the New England tradition of town

meetings, experiments in worker self-management,

the community self-help programs of the Black

Panthers, and the movements to contest and

redefine notions of sexuality and gender, among

others. Let's forget about appearing patriotic.

Rather, let's insist on the ability of all people

and communities to self-determine and control

their own destinies in a global society premised

on cooperation and mutual aid. As the Italian

anarchist Errico Malatesta once proclaimed,

"Everything depends on what people are capable of


* * *

We hope that this essay will spark a constructive

dialogue among antiwar activists, and challenge

our allies' ideas regarding patriotism and social

change. In today's political climate, those of us

who are willing to speak out against the rising

tide of militarism need each other more than

ever. Let's work together to demand a world where

direct democracy, freedom, and diversity prevail.

--Free Society Collective

Central Vermont

14 February 2003

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