Flags, Idols and Envy of the SPQR

Of late, I have been reading about the Romans, a group of exceptionally creative — if frequently cruel — lawyers with a really good army. What is not to like? It has got me thinking a bit about patriotism.

The Romans took patriotism very seriously, and it was tied up with their religion. Loyalty to the Republic and its constitution and traditions was tied up with loyalty to the gods. Civic rituals were religious rituals and vice-versa. It is not that the Roman Republic was a theocracy subject to the rule of its priests. It was a thoroughly legalistic oligarchy and interestingly much of its law was frankly secular and was placed outside of the control of the priests. Indeed, the earliest Roman law code that we have — the Twelve Tables — was a self-conscious attempt to take law away from the priests by promulgating it on tablets in the market place rather than in sacred, esoteric books under the sole control of the clergy. Still, sacrilege, blasphemy, divine retribution and blessing, religious oaths, and liturgical rituals were all concepts that had frankly civic and political meanings. Which leads me to flags.

Flags are a symbol that comes to us directly from the Romans. Our flags are the genetic decendents of the standards carried into battle by the Roman legions. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans didn’t conceive of their gods in necessarily personal terms, but rather thought of them as vital forces animating the world. The point is important for understanding the significance of the standard for the Roman legions. The standard was, quite literally, an idol. It was the embodiment of the god — the vital force — of the legion. It was never to fall into the hands of the enemy. Roman commanders and soldiers alike took this extremely literally, and there are numberless accounts of Roman legionaries doing impossible things in order to preserve their standards from the enemy. When the Roman general Varrus was massacred by the Germans, the Emperor Augustus was inconsolable until a second Roman army had destroyed the German tribes responsible and recaptured the lost standards.

In a sense the fact that the symbol of nationhood is an idol captures for me the dilemma that I face as a Mormon in a liberal society. On one hand, an idol is the antithesis of true religion, a blasphemy far from the true things of God. The nation holds itself out as a community with claims upon us, but if Zion is the true model of community, the nation is always a second-rate imitation: a dumb idol with no soul. Yet at the same time, the integrated Roman Republic is extremely attractive in many ways, and the unity of spiritual and civic life is something to be envied and hoped for. In a sense, I want to believe in the gods of the standards. Yet it is not clear to me that the modern nation still breathes life into them. If there are still gods in the flags then it seems to me that they lack something of the naive and integrated self-confidence of the deities housed in the Roman standards.

And so I read books and enjoy shuddering at and envying the Roman Republic.

44 comments for “Flags, Idols and Envy of the SPQR

  1. Seth Rogers
    May 18, 2005 at 12:48 pm

    One of the big catastrophes of the twentieth century was that the political elites lost control of the icons. Once the icons became a powerful motivating symbol for working class Germans, or ordinary Americans, the groundwork was set for some of the most destructive wars in world history.

    Wars between monarchs have historically, as a rule, been less destructive than popular democratic wars (don’t forget that German facism and Russian socialism were popular movements). The new breed of working-class nationalism is far more dangerous than the old nationalism evidenced by the Roman legionairres.

    Personally, I have little use for patriotism. I consider it a self-destructive thought pattern.

  2. Josh Kim
    May 18, 2005 at 12:52 pm

    Patriotism is a good thing. There is a difference between jingoism and patriotism.

    Patriotism is love of your country and for the ideals it espouses. Jingoism is irrational militarism.

  3. Nate Oman
    May 18, 2005 at 12:55 pm

    Seth: An interesting point in response was that until quite late in the Roman Republic the proletariat were excluded from the Army. One had to be a citizen in order to join the legions and meet certain property qualifications. The rule was changed by Marius in the generation before Julius Ceasar. It had two results. First, it allowed Rome to continue to raise the vast armies necessary for its continued conquests. Second, it made the soldiers much more economically dependent on their general than previously, which meant that increasingly armies were tied to their generals rather than to the Republic. It is no accident that the word Emporer originally signified a victorious general.

  4. May 18, 2005 at 1:05 pm

    Seth – wars fought by popular movements are destructive because liberal society produce extraordinarily effecient means to feed their nations (and hence the foder for war) and to kill. If the Ancient romans had nukes, I imagine that they would be far less restrained than the current status quo.

  5. May 18, 2005 at 1:18 pm

    Flags are a symbol that comes to us directly from the Romans….The standard was, quite literally, an idol.

    The idea of an ensign or flag does not have to be rooted in Roman Idolatry.

    We see the concept of an ensign, a standard or banner, and the military standard bearer before the establishment of the Roman Republic. It is used repeatedly in the Old Testament by Isaiah and others (from which we derive the name of our Church magazine), and quoted by Nephi.

    We might even say that the Ark of the Covenant was a kind of ensign for the people of Israel.

    [Oh…and is the similarity of this topic to the one posted at the M* earlier this morning completely serendipitous? If not we would appreciate a trackback…]

  6. Kevin Barney
    May 18, 2005 at 1:23 pm

    In the third paragraph, where you say “ancestors,” I think you meant “descendants.”

    Since someone will inevitably ask, SPQR is an acronym for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome.”

    Your post also made me think of the fasces lictoriae, which were wooden rods bundled like a cylinder around an axe, a symbol of power and authority in Rome. The symbolism of the rods entailed strength through unity (much like the Primary lesson on breaking one pencil v. trying to break a bundle of pencils). Unfortunately, the Latin fasces has come into English in the various forms of “fascism.”

  7. Josh Kim
    May 18, 2005 at 1:52 pm

    By the way, I am a U.S. Marine Veteran who had the privilege of serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I saw people who were liberated from a totalitarian regime by brave troops who fought under the banner of Old Glory.

    Unfortunately the people we freed are now being attacked by their own people in the name of hate. The religion, much like a flag is being hijacked by warmongers.

    I guess there are two sides to some issues, but not all issues. Clearly we can differentiate those who use flags for right and those who use flags to seduce and betray.

  8. Kaimi
    May 18, 2005 at 1:57 pm


    No no no, that’s not how you do it. You have to say “POACHERS!” And that’s usually the sum total of the text. Anything more messes up the effect.

    If you need help getting the process down, you may want to drop Steve Evans an e-mail. He’s the undisputed master of the poaching comment, and he could probably give you some pointers.

  9. Nate Oman
    May 18, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    JMW: I hadn’t thought of the Isaiah passages, which are a kind of nice counterpoint to my Roman story. In a sense, however, they simply illustrate the point that I am trying to make. What makes Roman patriotism interesting to me is the extent to which it had — for want of a better term — a spiritual aspect. What is interesting to me is how we manage the divided spirituality of nation and church, a division that would have been incomprehensible to a Republican Roman.

    I actually agree with Josh. I think that nations — flags if you will — are capable of great and noble things that are worth our admiration and sacrifice. It seems that Seth’s position — “Patriotism is all bunk” — is boring in its clean simplicity. There is no divided spirituality. The cost, of course, is that you will never know the sort of civic spirituality that Josh refers to or that the Roman’s seemed to have enjoyed in such abundence. That, it seems to me, is a loss.

  10. obi-wan
    May 18, 2005 at 3:26 pm

    Patriotism is love of your country and for the ideals it espouses. Jingoism is irrational militarism.

    And what if the ideal your country espouses is irrational militarism?

  11. May 18, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    Nate, I’m surprised to see you pine for a reunification of the patriotic with the spiritual, since that seems to be a project that Mormonism has been attempting for quite a while. This can be traced to the currents of manifest destiny in the Book of Mormon, Joseph’s American placement of Eden and Adam-ondi-Ahman, and most importantly, our fervent belief of an inspired founding, as well as an apocryphally overwrought sense of our place in defending it (constitution hanging by a thread, etc).

    I think the results of this motif in Mormondom have been mixed, provoking a healthy patriotism among most Mormons (probably higher than the rest of their countryment), but also inspiring some nuttiness. Still, regardless of whether you like how it’s turned out for us, it seems that the answer to your “patriotism as idolatry” charge is simple: make the state an instrument of God. Suddenly, you approach the country as you would the church– as a vehicle by which God enacts his will. Of course, this leads to a whole other set of problems, but I think it effectively protects us from any kind of idolatry.

    By the way, your response to Seth’s point was a big window into the way your mind works, and explained to me your gift for finding middle grounds and third ways– everything else is “boring.”

  12. Nate Oman
    May 18, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    Ryan: I think that you are exactly right about the various strands of Americanism within Mormonism. There is also the broader brand of civic religion in America. I am not sure to what extent I am pining. (The verb “pine” always brings up images of what I did for my future wife during the phase of our relationship in which she decided that she “respected” me). It seems that there are two ways in which to read the Mormon spiritualization of American civic life. You can either take it as being part of the Mormon philosophy of history, namely that America — like the invention of the printing press or the Protestant Reformation — was a necessary but insufficient condition for the restoration. Alternatively, one can take the more ambitious view of America as not only the cradle of God’s original interaction with man but also as a model of liberty for the rest of the world.

    I suppose that part of it is simply an accident of my historical interests. I am really interested in the period from 1857 to 1890 in Mormon history when we were the objects of coercion by the federal government. This period produced a third — now almost forgotten — strand of Mormon spiritualization of American life that was mainly negative. The United States was the godless Babylon bent on the destruction of the Saints that had apostatized from whatever truth God had shed upon them. I am not sure how these three versions of Mormon civic religion are supposed to interact, particularlly in a religion that now sees itself in global and universal terms.

    You can see what the simplicity of conquering the barbarians and carrying the booty home in triumph to the Forum Romanum has a certain elegant appeal to it. ;->

  13. May 18, 2005 at 4:36 pm

    Great post, Nate. Obviously there’s a whole Pledge of Allegiance discussion that could follow. Congress officially recognized the Pledge in 1942, linking an oath (of sorts), war, and the flag in the same way the Romans linked their gods and oaths, their wars, and the standards.

    Interestingly, when “under God” was finally added in 1954, it was to emphasize that the allegiance given the flag and the Republic it symbolizes were both subordinate to God. It was intended to differentiate the US allegiance oath from those undertaken in truly secular regimes like the USSR. In a sense, then, adding “under God” was designed to weaken the Pledge, not strengthen it, while in Rome the “god of the standards” was invoked to strengthen the oaths of the Romans. Adding “under God” to the Pledge makes it clear neither the Flag nor the Republic are gods, despite receiving a bit of veneration via the Pledge.

    I guess my point is that one must have visible symbols as points around which patriotism can be focused and intensified, an especially urgent requirement in time of war. But that raises a challenge to set limits on those potent symbols once they are activated and exploited by the State. Roman allegiance to their standards seems excessive. American allegiance to the flag seems effective, yet limited.

  14. Daylan Darby
    May 18, 2005 at 11:55 pm

    POACHER!!! 8-)


    It’s interesting the difference in words used T&S must be filled with all those lawyers that Christ preached against? 8-0

  15. Seth Rogers
    May 19, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    Nate, I often find the most simple and elegant theories to be ultimately the most interesting (I’m not asserting that my post meets either criteria). I often find the platitude: “reality is somewhere inbetween” more boring than actually having the audacity to declare absolute ideals.

    In any case, I suppose your characterization of my postion as “Patriotism is all bunk” is somewhat accurate. This doesn’t mean I discredit all actions taken in the name of the flag. But it does mean that I think there are better motivations for human action.

    Ryan Bell makes an interesting point about religion and country being merged into the same thing. But of course, this presents very real dangers as well when the triad of the military, the clergy, and the rulers unite for self-gain. This unholy union is one of the oldest combinations in world history. Its very legitimacy in the eyes of the people is what makes it so dangerous.

  16. May 19, 2005 at 2:05 pm

    I’m not going to attempt any exegesis her, but I came across an interesting passage this morning that I thought might be cogent to the discussion:

    D&C 105 (emphasis added)
    30 And after these lands are purchased, I will hold the armies of Israel guiltless in taking possession of their own lands, which they have previously purchased with their moneys, and of throwing down the towers of mine enemies that may be upon them, and scattering their watchmen, and avenging me of mine enemies unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.

    31 But first let my army become very great, and let it be sanctified before me, that it may become fair as the sun, and clear as the moon, and that her banners may be terrible unto all nations;

    32 That the kingdoms of this world may be constrained to acknowledge that the kingdom of Zion is in very deed the kingdom of our God and his Christ; therefore, let us become subject unto her laws.

  17. Nate Oman
    May 19, 2005 at 2:50 pm

    “I often find the platitude: “reality is somewhere inbetween” more boring than actually having the audacity to declare absolute ideals.”

    Fair enough. I suppose that my problem with simple theories comes when they are used to pretend that difficult questions are actually very easy. The problem with saying “Patriotism is all bunk” is not that it avoids finding the hoped for Golden Mean, but rather because, as it happens, patriotism ISN’T all bunk. There is something deeply appealing about patriotism and there is some nobility in loyalty and service to one’s native land that one must pretend doesn’t exist in order to adopt that clean cynicism that you suggest.

  18. Seth Rogers
    May 19, 2005 at 5:41 pm

    Nate, I agree that there’s a lot of righteous impulse intertwined with the patriotic impulse. But I distinguish between the two. My point was that the righteousness done in the name of patriotism often could have been done under a higher moral principle.

    For example, I don’t see the story of “Captain Moroni and the Title of Liberty” as a story about the virtues of patriotism. Moroni was fighting in defense of religion, family, home and liberty. He was not fighting for the Nephite nation as a distinguishable entity from the Lamanites.

    Moroni was on the side of righteousness, not the Nephite nation. At least, that’s my take-home message (who knows, he might have actually been “pro-Nephite” for all we know …).

    I love liberty, not the USA. Any love I have for this nation is subordinate to the higher values it follows. When it ceases to represent anything worthwhile, I will cheer its death.

    I suppose you could make the argument that the flag is simply a symbol of all these particular virtues in the same way that the sacrament is a symbol of the Atonement. Perhaps it serves the same utilitarian function. That’s an argument I’ll have to think about a bit more.

  19. A. Greenwood
    May 19, 2005 at 8:10 pm

    ” Roman commanders and soldiers alike took this extremely literally, and there are numberless accounts of Roman legionaries doing impossible things in order to preserve their standards from the enemy. ”

    I shouldn’t give you encouragement, but during the Civil War regimental flags were treated much the same way. There are plenty of accounts of folks going to absurd lengths to keep their standard out of enemy hands. And to capture enemy standards. Being the color sergeant was a post of real honor and very often fatal. I think it admirable.

  20. Jack
    May 19, 2005 at 10:28 pm


    You will cheer it’s death? Perhaps I misunderstand you. Wouldn’t we do better to do as Mormon did and cry “oh ye fair ones!”? You can argue that Mormon is speaking only of the slain of his people and not of a political entity of sorts. But then, on the other hand how does a nation decline into wickedness except it’s citizens embrace wickedness? I ache for my country, for it’s wickedness and abominations. But, this aching comes from the enchroachment of that wickedness upon what is virtuous about my country. I love the country in which I live, and should the day come that it merits extinction because of it’s wickedness, then I will mourn it’s death as a parent mourns the death of a wayward child.

  21. Seth Rogers
    May 20, 2005 at 1:05 am

    Well, you certainly have a point. It’s easy to be cavalier about hypothetical situations I suppose. The reality of the collapse of the US would likely be much more horrible and would involve the suffering of many people. Of course I wouldn’t be happy about that.

    The problem is that it’s hard to separate the nation (which is merely a symbol) from the people it represents (who are the reality). Maybe any attempt to try an separate them is a futile exercise. However, I would like to make an attempt nonetheless.

    I just can’t shake the feeling that patriotism is a crutch we are using to implement moral values in our society that could be much better implemented through the use of other values (such as humility, faith, compassion, etc.). It feels like my mission when we started using Indiana Jones and Star Wars to teach Gospel principles. Sure it was exciting, easily grasped and seemed to have some sort of short-term impact on our investigators. But such teaching methods came at a cost as well. The spirit wasn’t quite right, the impact was fleeting, not everyone responded positively, and you had missionaries in movie rental joints (not a good idea in Japan).

    I see patriotism the same way. It gets the blood flowing, it’s a cheap and easy way to rally the masses, and seems to get good results. But the focus is taken away from God, the flag is raised in His place, people withdraw behind their own borders, world community is undermined, the symbols are hijacked by cynical men for their own selfish gain, and mob mentality takes over.

    As a student of history, I have never seen national pride yield good results. Indeed nationalism was directly responsible for the two most destructive wars in world history (J. Stapley, I’ll answer your point later). Most of the genocides I’ve read about came from the same place. Of course, the rapid modernization of Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s looks like an exception to this. However, even that brand of national pride was eventually perverted into an obscene brand of national militarism that tore apart the Asian continent in the 1930s.

    Patriotism is a luxury that Americans have so far been able to afford because we have no hostile borders. In Europe, the kind of patriotism Americans indulge in would anihilate the entire continent. If France and Germany both practiced American-style patriotism, they would go to war, plain and simple. In Europe today, patriots are looked at as raving lunatics who ought to be locked up before they hurt someone. The trouble is, the borders in the world are disappearing, and everyone is becoming a neighbor. We can’t afford our exclusive brand of national pride for much longer.

  22. Jack
    May 20, 2005 at 3:26 am

    “The trouble is, the borders in the world are disappearing, and everyone is becoming a neighbor. We can’t afford our exclusive brand of national pride for much longer.”


    I like this line of thinking from Arthur Henry King:

    “We sometimes use patriotism to whitewash our sins. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon patriotism. We should abandon our sins. Patriotism rightfully concieved is a great and noble thing. It is part of religion, and therefore as patriots it is our deepest duty to help bring out what is best in our country–to fight corruption, tyranny, and moral decay, and to work to bring our people, wherever they are, back to God. We seek a country; we seek a city. They are the city and the country of God.”

    I take this to mean, in part at least, that the “city and country of God” which we seek are not only to be found by seeking the Church which knows no political boundries, but also by seeking to edify one’s country in ways that will bring it, as well as the Church, closer to Zion.

  23. Nate Oman
    May 20, 2005 at 10:35 am

    I actually have a theory about militarism and patriotism that goes something like this: In Europe the nation state system created after the peace of Westphalia created a basic strategic problem: it was multi-polar and each power feared the activities of the other powers, which led to suspicion and wars. However, because no nation ever had the power to destroy the system and impose some sort of hegmonic alternative — witness the successive failures of Louis XIV, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, etc. — none of the wars that the Europeans faught ever changed the underlying strategic problematic. In short, the Europeans were incapable of solving their basic strategic problem with wars.

    In contrast, wars have proved quite successful for the United States in the sense that American Wars have by and large solved the strategic problems over which they were faught — ie, expulsion of the British, westward expansion, exclusion of European colonialism from the hemisphere, destruction of Nazi Germany, etc. There have been one or two exceptions — most notably American involvement in WWI, which was viewed by post-war Americans as a mistake that we were hoodwinked into mainly by the crafty British and Vietnam — but by and large war has worked for America. Hence, the pacifism of continental Europeans sounds hopelessly dogmatic to most American ears precisely because in our historical experience it simply isn’t true that war never solved anything. (BTW, I suspect that their quasi-detachment from the militarily insoluable continental strategic situation and their military success in pursuing a global, oceanic policy over the course of several centuries probably accounts for the slightly more positive attitude toward war that one sees in the UK.)

    The irony, of course, was that the strategic problem of Westphalia was ultimately solved by a military success, but ultimately not a European one. Hence, while I think that WWII occupies in the European imagination the role of the ultimate example of military pointlessness — it was the cataclysm that the insoluable Westphalia strategic problem created — in the American imagination it represents the ultimate example of military success, the solution by American arms of a problem that the happless Europeans couldn’t solve despite 400 years of trying. Hence, Americans and Europeans draw diametrically opposed strategic lessons from the same event.

    It seems that Seth’s discomfort with patriotism comes from the link between patriotism and war. To the extent that patriotism is a largely discredited concept in continental Europe but not in the USA (and to a lesser extent Britian), I would suggest that what is at work is not some universal truth but different historical experiences. For Americans patriotism — even in its military form — is seen as something that draws out acts of courage and self-sacrifice that allows us to solve huge problems and make the world a better place, while for Europeans patriotism is seen as an engine that drives an ultimately ineffectual — and therefore pointless — cycle of war and violence.

  24. May 20, 2005 at 10:48 am

    Come listen to a Prophet’s voice on Patriotism:

    “Love of country is surely a strength . . .

    but carried to excess it can become the cause of spiritual downfall. There are some citizens whose patriotism is so intense and so all-consuming that it seems to override every other responsibility, including family and Church. I caution those patriots who are participating in or provisioning private armies and making private preparations for armed conflict. Their excessive zeal for one aspect of patriotism is causing them to risk spiritual downfall as they withdraw from the society of the Church and from the governance of those civil authorities to whom our twelfth article of faith makes all of us subject.”

    Dallin H. Oaks, “Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall,” Ensign, Oct. 1994, 11 http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll?f=templates$fn=default.htm

    Yes, it was published in the international versions of the Ensign; so this isn’t Ameri-centric; but intended for all Saints in all countries.

  25. Miranda PJ
    May 20, 2005 at 11:15 am

    Jonathan Max Wilson, you’re right that the ensign needn’t be rooted in Roman idolatry. An ensign is a mark, a sign, a figure, or an image, and thus a kind of representation, be it the possession of Romans, Israelites, or Nephites. Our own latter-day flags stand for very different things than those of the Romans. In the 21st century, Augustus’s concern over his lost flags was due to an overactive superstition. But we are being blind to our own modes of signifying if we assume that we occupy a privileged position to pass verdict on these representations of other cultures.

    A photograph is a writing in light, a depiction that can be had for the glancing. Like other forms of writing and depicting, it takes some practice to reliably produce output and interpret output before it recognizably represents of the subject. Photographs are the ensigns of our millennium. Who here wouldn’t be inconsolable if a photograph of their spouse or mother fell into the hands of their enemy?

  26. Miranda PJ
    May 20, 2005 at 11:19 am

    Oops. That last line should read “Who here wouldn’t be inconsolable if a photograph of their NAKED spouse or NAKED mother fell into the hands of their enemy?

  27. Jonathan Green
    May 20, 2005 at 11:25 am

    Nate, you make an interesting suggestion about war, patriotism, and history. If I understand you correctly, the legitimacy of the link between war and patriotism depends on how well war has worked as a strategic option in the past for a given country. Doesn’t the American Civil War present something of a problem? Like the 30 Years War and both world wars of the 20th century, the Civil War illustrates that one of the most insanely stupid things you can ever do is fight a war on your own territory. The South not only lost, but had its development retarded by something like a century. That does not seem to have dampened southern fondness for patriotism, enthusiasm for military solutions, or regard for their separatist heritage. At “Patriot’s Point” in Charleston, you can tour an aircraft carrier and other warships and a recreated Vietnamese firebase and view memorials to war as a stage upon which acts of acts of courage and self-sacrifice are done. From there, you can also catch a ferry to Fort Sumter.

    Doesn’t this bring us back to the problem of narrative? You mention European history as a determining factor in how many Europeans think of war, and I agree on several points. But how people think of war can also be a deciding factor in how their history plays out, I think.

  28. Wilfried
    May 20, 2005 at 11:25 am

    Many true things on this thread… Of course I side with Seth Rogers, but Nate’s analysis is certainly interesting.

    One item to nuance, Nate: European nations? It’s quite a difference if you are part of a small country (now called Belgium) which your big patriotic neighbors have annexed in turn and used as battleground for centuries. Even more if that small country is now just an artificial region created in 1830 as bufferzone between France, Germany and England. And thus to me patriotism is an unknown feeling. Ah, not completely: I feel great national pride when Justine Henin or Kim Clijsters beat Serena Williams or Lindsay Davenport. Then the whole family is shouting and jumping up and down in front of the tv.

    OK, seriously: to most people patriotism displayed by a big nation is usually sensed as arrogant and threatening, even if it comes from the defender of democracy in the world. Subjective, of course, but understandable social psychology.

  29. annegb
    May 20, 2005 at 11:52 am

    I’m nervous about posting here since Jim posted his dismay, especially because I don’t understand some of the words completely. I can’t be honest if I’m worrying about pleasing others, or getting that stamp of disapproval. Are we going for dialogue here or a gold star from the teacher?

    Plunging in. I don’t agree that patriotism leads to violence or is a source of shame because other countries don’t feel that proud love for themselves, through their own fault or others.

    For me, patriotism is not a blanket endorsement of my country or my leaders. I reserve the right to dissent, which is one of the things I celebrate about America. I am a patriot and I love my country, not right or wrong, but I love it, nevertheless, warts and all. I am very grateful that I was born an American. I do not accept that love for country (and I think if I were born in France, or Nicaragua, or Ghana, I would feel the same attachment and love) is a negative trait.

  30. Nate Oman
    May 20, 2005 at 12:06 pm

    Jonathan: My point is less about legitimacy than about attitudes about efficacy. I think that there is a strong feeling in Europe that war simply cannot solve any problems. I think that you are much more likely to find Americans who believe that war can solve problems. I actually think that the moral legitimacy of each position depends. For example, I think that European pacifism was responsible in part for the 1990s genocide in the Balkans, which continued unabated while the European powers dithered. The fact of the matter is that this was a problem that could be solved by military means, and was once NATO (which meant mainly the United States) became involved. (In fairness, I should add is that my understanding is that there is a non-trivial argument to be made that European militaries simply lacked the capacity to intervene effectively in Yugoslavia without U.S. aid, which makes America equally complicity — if complicity there be — in the Yugoslavian disaster.) On the other hand, I think that Americans are frequently niave about the extent to which chronic problems can be solved militarily, which can lead to horrible outcomes, witness the wreck that we made of Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s.

    I think that narratives matter up to a cetain point in explaining national behavior and experiences, but this — it strikes me — is a classic example of a point at which narrative as an explination and motivator runs out at a certain point. No matter how many hegmonic narratives the post-Westphalian nation states spawned (and the French Revolution and German nationalism were nothing if not hegmonic narratives) in the end, no power had the material wherewithal to pull it off. At a certain point literary realities run out and real realities take over.

    Your point with regard to the South is interesting. Let me suggest, however, that one of the reasons that the South maintains a patriotic and military tradition is precisely because the North was so overwhelmingly successful in the Civil War. The strategic situation that called forth secession simply did not exist after the war because the landscape had been so thoroughly remade by the force of American arms. Imagine a situation in which the north and the south fought generations of inconclusive wars, none of which changed the underlying conditions that called forth the wars in the first place. The South was able to re-integrate itself into the American, patriotic narrative, if you will, because the material possiblity of alternative narratives had been destroyed.

    Wilfried: I imagine that for small, somewhat “artificial” countries such as Belgium the lesson of military pointlessnes to be drawn from European history is even stronger. The basic strategic problem for Belgium, it seems to me, has been that it is the natural place for France, Germany, and England to fight their battles. Imagine a world in which Belguim was able, by force of arms, to solve that strategic problem, say by so completely overawing the French and the Germans that they could never use Flander’s as a battlefield. Such a military solution to the strategic problem, I would submit, would result in a very different attitude toward war. It wouldn’t necessarily transform Belgium into a sort of Waloon version of Junker Prusssia, but it might lead one’s thinking about war to turn more naturally toward regarding it as an insturment whose costs and benefits should be considered, rather than as a barbaric dead end.

  31. Jim F
    May 20, 2005 at 12:33 pm

    Annagb (#29): Perhaps you should reread the response in which I expressed my “dismay.” I didn’t ask you or anyone else to conform to my ideas of a good response. I didn’t hand out any gold stars or take any back. I merely said that we should stop responding to something when everyone is doing nothing more than saying the same old thing over and over again. It is pretty clear that was happening there. It is even more clear it isn’t happening here.

  32. Wilfried
    May 20, 2005 at 12:40 pm

    Nate: “Imagine a world in which Belgium was able, by force of arms, to solve that strategic problem, say by so completely overawing the French and the Germans that they could never use Flander’s as a battlefield. Such a military solution to the strategic problem, I would submit, would result in a very different attitude toward war”.

    I must concede that that is a strong argument. But not in the long run: the logic of war would bring France and Germany to develop weapons and strategies to change the situation. And wars would come in succession. The creation of the European Union, and its expansion to the east, is strongly argued from the viewpoint of peace. I do concede though that pacifism may lead to culpable immobilism as we have seen in recent decades.

  33. A. Greenwood
    May 20, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    In some ways, Wilfried D., I think you’re making Nate Oman’s point. You respond to his hypothetical by rejecting it– “the logic of war would bring France and Germany to develop weapons and strategies to change the situation. ” In other words, you appear to be unable to concieve of successful military action, or true dominance.

    This is not to say that your belief is wrong, of course. There’s no reason to reject the lessons of European history simply because they happened in Europe. (If those are the lessons. Donald Kagan, I believe, argues that the real lessons of WWI and WWII were that peace-loving, democratic nations need to be more militaristic and patriotic than they are, or something like that. The argument is more obvious with respect to WWII.)

  34. annegb
    May 20, 2005 at 12:50 pm

    I’m not widely traveled, these are my impressions, not presenting them as facts.

    But take Greece and Italy–these people appear to be very patriotic. They love and celebrate what is unique and wonderful about their countries. But they went through terrible times in WWII. They still maintained their unique national–eek–identity?

    I equate this with my neighborhood, though, and that is the only way I can empathize. I have some neighbors who are “winners.” They do well, their kids are achievers, the whole family rarely makes a misstep…and they are envied. By me, even, and I love them, they’ve been like my own family. They’ve helped me, stood by me, been an example of what I aim for.

    No matter how they try to love all of us, no matter how good they are, they are envied. They are quiet people, but if they were to celebrate themselves, that would tick people off even more.
    It’s human, I guess, but I think they have the right to love who they are and be glad. Just like Americans have the right. What I’m trying to do, here in my little world, is celebrate who my family is, and be glad, despite the fact that we don’t have all the things my neighbors do.

  35. annegb
    May 20, 2005 at 12:51 pm

    Jim F., I apologize for offending you with my comment.

  36. Jim F
    May 20, 2005 at 12:55 pm

    Annegb: You didn’t offend me. You said something inaccurate; I corrected you. I neither took offense nor intended any.

  37. Jim F
    May 20, 2005 at 2:19 pm

    Nate (#30): You say that if Europeans had experience of war more like those of the US, their thinking about it would “turn more naturally toward regarding it as an insturment whose costs and benefits should be considered, rather than as a barbaric dead end.”

    Unless I read more poorly than I think, neither the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, nor the Doctrine and Covenants give any justification for war but self defense. There are various ways to construe what self-defense includes, but I don’t see any way to construe it as “an instrument whose costs and benefits should be considered rather than a barbarid dead end.”

    How do you reconcile the approach you are taking with the scriptures?

  38. Jack
    May 20, 2005 at 3:57 pm


    I don’t think the question of offense or defense really has anything to do with Nates point. I think if a country is able to successfully defend itself then we see a tendency toward the kind of patiotism that Nate is talking about–right or wrong.

  39. annegb
    May 20, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    I don’t equate patriotism with defense capabilities or armies, I never did. There was the topic of the pledge of allegiance on the other blog–for me, that speaks to the heart of my love of country. Don’t you think the Swiss, who stand for nuetrality, are patriotic, that they love their country?

    As a young girl in a small wooden one-room schoolhouse in a tiny Nevada town, I loved the part every day where we sang songs like America the Beautiful and pledged allegiance to the flag. I didn’t, and don’t, think “my country can beat up your country.” I thought, “I love my country. We are good people.” I don’t see anything wrong with that.

    Totally off topic (almost): Nikita Kruschev came through our town when he was in the US. Our teachers prepared us and I thought: “King, gold coach, horses, Cinderella.” I got: big black cars, little waving US and Russian flags, and a short, fat, bald guy, smiling and waving.” What a gyp that was for a little girl. I remember feeling just disgusted, I mean, what was all that fuss for?

  40. Nate Oman
    May 20, 2005 at 4:32 pm

    Jim: I am trying to make a point about the sources of national attitudes toward the efficacy of war, rather than a point about war’s moral justification. I think that European pacificism is more than simply a moral stance, but I think that it also rests on a claim about whether or not it is possible to solve strategic problems through warfare. My point is that this claim regarding war’s efficacy has less salience in the United States because while it reflects European military history it does not reflect American military history.

    The question of whether or not strategic problems can be solved militariliy is a seperate question from whether or not one is morally justified in using war to solve them even if they do have military solutions.

  41. Jim F
    May 20, 2005 at 4:45 pm

    Nate, thanks for the clarification. Perhaps that will help us get back onto the topic.

  42. Nate Oman
    May 20, 2005 at 5:15 pm

    Jim: I do have one thought with regard to your point on self-defense. It seems to me that unless one confines self-defense to cases of actual attack or invasion that one is pushed inevitably into the realm of responding to threats. It seems to me that one’s response to threats will always be a combination of a couple of factors: (1) the magnitude of the potential damage to one’s self; (2) the probability that the feared damage will actually come about; (3) the cost of military action (including such “costs” as inflicting death and destruction on others); and, (4) the probability that military action will forestall the threatened danger.

    I take it that the definition of self-defense is a question of the interaction between variables (1) and (2). However, it seems to me that this is not the end of our moral calculus but that even if scriptural limits on legitimate war specify that a threat must be some combination of (1) and (2) in order to justify any military response, one’s assessment of (4) will still come into the equation. Hence, one might believe that the extent and probability of some threat is such that it could justify a military response, but such a response would nevertheless be immoral if the response itself was likely to be ineffectual. It seems to me that even if one agreed regarding the size and probability of the threat necessary to justify military action, one might still have differing moral conclusions based on one’s view as to the efficacy of war. Furthermore, it may well be the case that many of our discussions are confused and that we think that we are arguing about (1), (2), or (3) when in fact we simply disagree about (4).

  43. Seth Rogers
    May 20, 2005 at 5:44 pm

    Just about every party to World War I justified their actions as “self-defense.” The concept of self-defense is so flexible that in modern politics it scarcely retains any useful meaning.

    According to politicians, everything is self-defense.

  44. Joe
    May 21, 2005 at 2:00 am

    We’re going to have to expand our justifications for war beyond “self-defense” if we wish to praise intervention in the Balkans, as Nate does in #30. One of the major problems in the debate over legal uses of force is how/when to justify humanitarian intervention. Do the scriptures really limit wars to defense of self, as opposed to defense of others and defense of certain principles? It’s counterintuitive to me that the scriptures would allow us to defend ourselves but require us to sit back and watch the Hutus massacre all the Tutsis as long as they don’t threaten us.

    I think the scriptural teaching on war and morality is broader and more complex than self-defense. One of the starkest examples of this complexity, to me at least, is in Moroni’s letter to Pahoran, in which Moroni claims that God has commanded him to wage an offensive war against his own elected government unless they send him more food and reinforcements.

    One tangential comment re Nate’s #30, in which he suggests that Europe’s lack of military capacity changes the moral calculus of Balkan intervention. This is no doubt true, to a certain extent, but it should be pointed out that possession of military capacity is itself a moral choice, requiring enormous investment of both treasure and blood (dozens of U.S. soldiers are killed or wounded in training accidents every year). If Europe chooses not to invest in that capacity, they must bear some responsibility for the consequences.

Comments are closed.