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Why antiwar activists shouldn't claim the American flag
We aren't the "real patriots"

November 8, 2002 | Page 8

ELIZABETH SCHULTE explains why the antiwar movement shouldn't stake its claim as the "real patriots."

MORE THAN 200,000 people came to Washington, D.C., San Francisco and other cities October 26 to show their opposition to a new U.S. war on Iraq. This show of strength was bigger than most activists expected--and a real milestone for the antiwar movement.

Among the demonstrators, there were many different ideas about why Bush's war drive had to be opposed--and how. One of the most common ideas put forward was that we--as activist opponents of war--are the "real patriots."

From the very beginning of the "war on terrorism," George W. Bush and his administration have wrapped themselves in the flag--and accused those who opposed them of being "unpatriotic." If the antiwar movement were to stake its claim as being the "real patriots," the argument goes, we could deflect the critics who charge us with being "anti-American"--and win over more people to the antiwar cause.

As historian Andrew Manis put it in an article titled "Memo to the Peace Movement" that appeared on the Common Dreams Web site days after the Washington demonstration: "If we in the peace movement really wish to be relevant in American politics, we cannot repeat the historic mistakes of the anti-Vietnam protests. Instead of playing into the hands of the critics who think we hate America, we must go out of our way to show that protest is patriotic. Martin Luther King managed to convert most of America because he convincingly showed how the protests of the black freedom struggle were 'deeply rooted in the American dream.'"

Manis suggests that organizers "make an American flag the ticket to admission at antiwar rallies. When C-SPAN shows its pictures, let the audience look out over a sea of red, white, and blue. "In so doing we can burn into the American consciousness an image that patriotism need not be identified with war-mongering."

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BUT BEFORE a single antiwar activist takes up the American flag, they should take a closer look at what that flag really represents. To begin with, what does the American flag mean to people in countries that have been invaded by the U.S. military?

How did the people of the Philippines view the "Stars and Stripes" during the 1898-1902 war, in which more than 1 million people were killed? Or those who suffered in the more than 40 attempts since 1945 by Washington to overthrow foreign governments?

Whether it's flown on a foreign shore in the name of "spreading democracy," or hidden behind the scenes during a covert operation, or displayed on the bombers that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War, the American flag is soaked in blood. Around the world, it represents not freedom and democracy, but a long list of wars and invasions carried out in the interests of promoting U.S. economic and military control.

Second, how has the U.S. government treated American workers who fought its wars? U.S. soldiers from the First World War had to camp out in front of the White House in 1932 to demand the benefits that they were owed--only to be mowed down by government troops. Veterans of the 1991 Gulf War who came home with degenerative diseases--known as Gulf War Syndrome--know that Washington doesn't care about them and their health problems.

Where is the promised "American Dream" for workers when they come back home from fulfilling their "patriotic duty"? It turns out to have been a mirage.

This has been especially true for Blacks. Whenever African American soldiers have returned from wars abroad--always fought in the name of democracy and freedom--they have faced racism and inequality at home.

"This country befell upon us one big atrocity," former combat paratrooper Arthur Woodley Jr. recounts in the book Bloods, an oral history of Black Vietnam veterans. "They had us…believing that this war was for democracy and independence. It was fought for money. All those big corporations made billions on the war, and then America left…We went away intelligent young men to do the job of American citizens. And once we did, we came back victims."

Malcolm X made the point clearly in a 1964 speech: "No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver--no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare."

Even the more moderate Martin Luther King became a determined opponent of the Vietnam War--and earned the hatred of the American establishment for it. "We have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools," King said in his 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech, in which he publicly came out against the war.

This is the King that Andrew Manis is forgetting when he talks about how the civil rights leader knew how to portray his struggle as "patriotic." When King came out against the U.S. war on Vietnam--daring to connect it to the war on the poor at home--no amount of patriotism could shield him from attack. Time magazine dubbed his speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi."

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THE ANTIWAR movement doesn't need to "take back" the flag from supporters of war who are subverting its true meaning. It's their flag, not ours.

During the First World War, when the U.S. government passed the Sedition Acts to go after dissenters, it cloaked itself in the flag. And racist vigilantes clutched that same flag when they attacked immigrants, socialists, pacifists and other "un-American" elements. It's no coincidence that Attorney General John Ashcroft has used almost the same words in his campaign to shred our civil rights today with the USA PATRIOT Act.

As the socialist leader Eugene Debs put it in his 1918 antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio, "Every age, it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people." For this speech, the U.S. government named Debs a "traitor"--and sentenced him to prison for 10 years.

In that speech, Debs makes clear that, no matter what our leaders say, the world is divided not by nation, but by class--between those work and those who profit. "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles…They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command."

That's why it's in no one's interest--except Bush and the oilmen corporate crooks that he represents--for antiwar activists to take up the flag. There is nothing in America's dirty history--at home or abroad--to inspire loyalty.

What we should do is show our solidarity with those around the world who oppose this war drive. Any symbol that shows solidarity with the people of Iraq and the long list of other countries the U.S. plans to terrorize--or that links us with the millions of antiwar protesters around the globe--is a symbol worth holding up.

The American flag isn't that symbol.

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