Foreign Policy

Nationalism is a Poison

Governments never fail to call on their flocks to "love their country," and make any sacrifice on its behalf, "sacrifice" being defined by politicians.


"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred

"The Charge of the Light Brigade," Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The reason for the venom directed at those of us who question American sniper Chris Kyle's status as a hero can be put into one word: nationalism.

Nationalism is a poison. It attacks the mind, short-circuits thinking, and makes self-destruction look appealing. Nationalism sows the seeds of hate and war. It makes the title warrior an honorific instead of the pejorative it ought to be.

We see naked ugly nationalism in many defenses of Kyle. Defenders appear to have but one operating principle: If Kyle was an American military man and the people he killed were not American, then he was a hero. Full stop. No other facts are relevant. It matters not that Kyle was a cog in an imperial military machine that waged a war of aggression on behalf of the ruling elite's geopolitical and economic interests, that he did his killing on foreign soil, and that no Iraqi had come to the United States seeking to harm him or other Americans. (Contrary to what Kyle defenders seem to believe, not one Iraqi was among the 19 hijackers on 9/11, although had that been otherwise, the murder of millions of other Iraqis and the displacement of millions more would not have been justified.) All that apparently matters to many Kyle fans is that this man was born in America, joined the American military, and faithfully obeyed orders to kill people he called savages.

That is what nationalism does to a human being.

The ugliness of nationalism is often perceptible even by those who harbor it and commit terrible acts as a result. So they rationalize. They don't openly cheer the killing of Iraqis because they are Iraqis (or Arabs or Muslims); rather they plead self-defense: if we don't kill them, they will kill us. Kyle and his comrades were defending America and Americans' freedom, his defenders say.

But if you've seen American Sniper, the movie based on Kyle's book, you heard Kyle's wife, Taya, reject that claim. I'm surprised that this bit of dialogue has been ignored (to my knowledge) in the voluminous writing about the movie. As Kyle gets ready for yet another tour in Iraq, his unhappy wife asks why he is going back. "For you," he says, and by extension, America.

"No you're not," she fires back.

He also invokes the welfare of the Iraqis, telling his wife that being away from home for another long stretch would not be a problem because their family could spare the time and the Iraqis could not. She didn't buy that line either. She is deeply disturbed that her husband would rather try to fix Iraq (as though he and his comrades could do that through military force) than look after his family.

It's curious that Taya Kyle (if this scene actually took place) had a clearer picture of the world than Kyle's vitriolic nationalist defenders, who praise the sniper for following orders without question. (One even approvingly alluded to Tennyson's poem.)

If not for nationalism, such contortions — the conjuring of imaginary threats, the conceit in aspiring to save a society one knows absolutely nothing about, the twisting of the warrior's ways into virtues — would be unnecessary. Things could be called what they are. Someone who swears an oath that in practical terms obliges him to kill whomever the current White House occupant tells him to kill, "asking nothing about the justice of [the] cause," would be called a cold-blooded contract killer rather than a hero.

Nationalism, to judge by how nationalists conduct themselves, is an unswerving religious-like devotion to the nation, construed as a quasi-mystical entity — "America" — that cannot be wrong and so has the authority to command reverence and obedience. The nation transcends particular political officeholders, but the government, or state, is integral to the entity. The nation (country) cannot be imagined without the state. It would not be the same thing. When an American nationalist thinks of his country, he thinks not merely of a land mass with distinctive features, the people (a diverse group indeed), and its history (a mixed bag) because that list does not fully capture what they mean by America.

Government represents and expresses the will and sentiment of the nation. (To be sure, a nationalist can think that the people have erred in picking their "leaders," in which case the nation is misrepresented and has to be "taken back.") The power of compartmentalization allows some people who think of themselves as individualists while  seeing the nation in these corporate terms.

Let's remember that this quasi-mystical entity is what it is only because of countless contingent events effected by flawed human beings. The United States did not begin with 50 states, of course. Had events gone differently, it might have included some or all of Canada and none of what was once part of Mexico. It might have been without the Florida territory and the 828,000 square miles that constituted the Louisiana Purchase. The current boundaries were the result of (often bloody) human action but not entirely of human design. So it was with other nations. At one time, there were no nations as we think of them today.

"Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation," Ernest Renan said in his famous 1882 lecture, "What Is a Nation?," "which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations…. Unity is always effected by means of brutality." (Ludwig von Mises praised Renan and his lecture in Omnipotent Government.)

This integral relationship between nation and state is why nationalists reject claims that one can love one's country while despising the government. That's impossible by their definition of country. To oppose the government is to oppose the country. You may oppose a particular president, but don't dare oppose the military. Now, you can try to redefine country to make it something properly lovable, but you won't persuade a nationalist.

It's no accident that governments never fail to call on their flocks to "love their country," by which they mean: be willing to make any sacrifice on its behalf, with "sacrifice" defined by politicians. Instilling nationalism is always the primary mission of government and its schools because, as Ernst Gellner wrote in Nations and Nationalism, "It is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round."

That mission is behind the near-compulsory recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance (written by an avowed collectivist), salutes to "the troops" for "their service" on any and every occasion, and the playing of the national anthem and other nationalist songs at sporting events. It's what's behind the repeated, compulsive assurances that "America is the greatest country on earth." The ruling elite understands that love of country will inevitably find its application in fealty to the government, no matter what dissenters may say.

Some of us wish to distinguish nationalism from patriotism, but I don't think this works. Patriothas a lineage that includes the Greek words for "fatherland," patris; "of one's fathers," patrios; and "father," pater. This indicates the country's parental relationship to the citizen. It can't simply mean "land of one's fathers" because people believe they should feel patriotic about lands their fathers never set foot in. We're back to that quasi-mystical entity, America. Hence my definition of patriot: one who, no matter the difficulties, places power above party.

I understand the love of the place one knew as a child. I understand the love of home, of family, of community, of neighbors, and of people with whom one has shared experiences and beliefs. I understand the love of virtuous principles as expressed in historical documents (such as the Declaration of Independence). That kind of love does not ignite hate for the Other or create admiration for the warrior who enjoys killing the Other on order. That takes the poison of nationalism and an obsession with the nation it creates.

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.