Thursday, 20 March 2008

Worse than Patriotism

On today's anniversary, I want to share a passage which I read around the time of the invasion of Iraq and which has stayed with me over the five years since. I don't agree with it all or claim that it is all relevant, but at its heart is a distinction which pinpoints what made Tony Blair's justification of the war so repulsive. What makes this more striking is that the book from which it is taken was first published in 1960:

Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only by presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for 'their country' they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country's cause was just; but it was still their country's cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds - wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine - I become insufferable. The pretence that when England's cause is just we are on England's side - as some neutral Don Quixote might be - for that reason alone, is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it.

The author is CS Lewis, the book 'The Four Loves'. I am not sure that I can resign myself to the necessity of war or patriotism, but I suspect that Lewis is right when he says that what has replaced patriotism is worse. In the case of Iraq, Britain did not need to defend itself, but nor was the decision to join the invasion made without self-interest. The pious justifications were, indeed, insufferable.

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