As a soldier in the United States Army, I have often pondered what it means to be patriotic, what it means to serve our country and what it means to love America. In “Will War Ever End?” I described a dangerous misconception of patriotism that I witnessed while deployed in Baghdad.
When I was deployed in Iraq and had a chance to watch American news channels, I heard commentators say that if we question or criticize our government, we do not love America and are being unpatriotic. They believed that patriotism meant waving a flag and being blindly obedient, but this is not what it means to love our country.
What does it mean to truly love our country? We can better understand love of country by realizing what it means to love a child. Parents who love their children will try to correct a child caught stealing, abusing people or being dishonest. For parents who do not truly love their children, apathy will cause them not to care, enabling their children to get away with anything. In this same way, if we love our country we will do our best to improve it. We will try to make America a better place for everyone, as courageous citizens have always done.
Since our country’s founding, brave patriots have worked to give us the many freedoms we enjoy today. Although I am part African-American and part Asian, I had the opportunity to graduate from West Point and I have the freedom to write these words, because patriotic Americans loved their country, and were therefore willing to improve it.
These liberties were not achieved overnight. Two hundred years ago in America, anyone who was not a white male landowner suffered oppression. During this era, the majority of people lacked the right to vote, and many Americans lived as slaves. Our country is much more humane today than it was then. This happened because courageous citizens such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony, Woody Guthrie, Smedley Butler, Henry David Thoreau and many others struggled to make our country a better place for all people.
Because of the countless responsible Americans who loved and were therefore willing to question, constructively criticize and improve their country, America has made a lot of progress. When my father was drafted into the Army as an African-American in 1949, the military was segregated because the government upheld an official policy that viewed African-Americans as inferior and subhuman. Fifty years before then, the government would not allow women to vote, and only fifty years prior to that, the government supported and protected slavery.
To overcome the injustice that still persists, patriotism is a labor of love that requires us to question our government and think critically so that America can become a more humane and peaceful country for all of its citizens and a role model for the rest of the world. Although we have a long way to go before America truly becomes a symbol of justice and peace for the rest of the world, we have also journeyed a long way in this democratic experiment because of patriotic Americans who loved and constructively criticized their country.
Martin Luther King Jr. said:
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken: the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered…. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.”
This form of national progress is necessary for our country’s survival, and it requires us to pursue the truth. The truth can hurt sometimes, but we must keep in mind that discomfort is not always a bad thing. For example, lifting weights at the gym, running and other forms of physical exercise are uncomfortable. But this discomfort is necessary to make us healthy and strong. In this same way, a change in our country’s moral perception of war, economic inequality and environmental destruction can also be uncomfortable, but this discomfort is necessary to make us healthy and strong as a nation.
In the past two hundred years, we have seen a change in our country’s moral perception of slavery, the oppression of women and racial segregation. As a result, our country is much healthier today than the America that drafted my father into a segregated Army, the America that would not allow women to vote, the America that supported slavery and the America that oppressed all people except white male landowners.
With the survival of our planet now at stake, our country needs patriotic Americans to question, think critically and continue to pioneer this democratic experiment. Now more than ever, our country needs us to help it become a beacon of hope that exports peace instead of war. Only patriotism, not blind obedience or flag waving, can make America healthy and strong. Only patriotism can save America from itself.
Capt. Paul K. Chappell is currently serving in the Army on active duty. He graduated from West Point in 2002 and he was deployed to Baghdad during 2006 and 2007. He is the author of “Will War Ever End?: A Soldier’s Vision of Peace for the 21st Century” and the upcoming book, “The End of War: New Ideas for Achieving World Peace. His Web site is www.willwareverend.com.