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Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as: love for or devotion to one’s country.

Sounds nice, as far as it goes. But it isn’t quite like being loving and devoted to family and friends, or even the smaller structure of your own town or city, county or state. You can’t be patriotic to them because they lack an armed force. That’s the difference.

Cities, towns, and states don’t demand loyalty like a country does. The loyalty demand arises in conjunction with an armed force. True patriots agree in principle with the supreme authority of the state to decide who lives and who dies. That’s on both sides of the battle, good to recognize.

Though it’s possible for dictionary patriotism to exist in the absence of armed force, in practice patriotic urges are strongest when military force is in the bargain. So closely is the military linked to patriotism that the institution registers the most positive public trust, this at a time when, save for small business and police, all other institutions register negative trust at or near historical lows.

Not that there’s anything wrong with defending your country from attack. Self defense, even beyond its moral component, is legally justified under international law, so there’s no question here.

Yet, in the hands of the wrong person, or group of persons, the authority to use force can result in the most grievous crimes. Some of these crimes were enunciated by the victorious Allies (us) over the defeated Axis (Nazis) at the Nuremberg Trials. Among them was Crimes against Peace, War Crimes, and Crimes against Humanity. These standard-setting crimes were articulated in the full knowledge that they would apply impartially to all future violators, importantly including us, so stated chief U.S. prosecutor Robert H. Jackson. Whether or not he meant it, it sounds good on paper.

A pertinent question: Were the ordinary German citizens of the Third Reich patriotic? By ordinary is meant those not targeted by the state for persecution and gradual elimination, like Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and communists. Fairness would compel us to admit that many non-targeted Germans were and remained patriots. Indeed, patriotism is the default position of the citizen.

Then you had a murky layer between patriot and dissident, the “Good German”. The term refers to that category of people who claimed not to have supported Nazi crimes, or claimed ignorance of them, but did not actively resist. We can see from the German example the implicit danger when the citizen relinquishes individual responsibility in obeisance to the state.

The precedents established at Nuremberg are operative even when a nation’s crimes fall safely below the magnitude of industrial Nazi extermination. Our foreign policy elites are crucially aware of this threshold as a comparative, a certain and recurring feature of our war propaganda. We do war in the most humane way. Like surgeons.

The so-called Iraq War was an act of aggression, the supreme international crime against peace. We (meaning all of us, including our “Good Germans”) got away with it for the same reason that Mafia dons get away with their crimes. They’re covered on all sides. Only this was easier because our patriotic citizens didn’t have to be bribed or forced into submission.

All it took was the right kind of propaganda and the apparatus to spread it to induce a patriotic response. In the end, a majority of Americans agreed it was better to fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them here. No mushroom clouds over us.

Should Obama have called Bush Jr. and the bunch out? What would papa Bush have thought? He had infamously declared, “I will never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.” Such strength!

In truth, no president will go after a predecessor. It might erode public trust in the office. Avoidance of this risk is part of the presidential code. You can’t have people distrusting authority.

If this is true, a contradiction can be noted. Since public trust of government is at or near historical lows, acknowledgment of and punishment for crimes might have an opposite and salutary effect.

Our government will never admit to crimes, even in the past. They’re “mistakes”and it won’t happen again. It takes a died in the wool patriot to swallow this whole because we are a little mistake prone.

For example, the mistake we are currently making in Venezuela is an actual crime. Interfering with the government of a sovereign nation, instigating an overthrow of an elected president, economic aggression against a state, threatening the use of armed force…these are all international crimes.

The reason American patriots fail to recognize them as crimes is because they’re never directed against us. Our good luck. Racism, sexism, and religionism are on their way to the dustheap. Patriotism, the kind that places people in the stupor of blind submission to authority, would be a welcome addition.

James Rothenberg, from the Empire State of the Empire country, writes on that country’s social and foreign policy.

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