Patriotism beyond the military

Source_MKini: Patriotism beyond the military by Josh Hong
In the feudal era, soldiers played a pivotal role in territorial expansion for kings and emperors, to whom they swore their allegiance. The Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, defined kingdoms by their rite of self-sovereignty and provided the rudimentary framework for nation-states. It also made it possible for the military to place greater loyalty on the state and the constitution rather than the ruler.

Like it or not, the military has long been one major state institution involved in the construction of citizenship. However, Morris Janowitz, an American sociologist of German origin, warns that while military service bears the hallmark of modern citizenship, under no circumstances should a soldier’s military background take precedence over his (or her) status as a citizen. Hence, he or she must first and foremost be accountable to a democratically elected civilian government.

Salient marker for patriotism

Given that a strong and well-functioning military is essential to safeguarding territorial integrity and national interests, joining armed forces becomes a salient marker for patriotism. All the excessive celebration over modernism has yet to shatter the myth in many societies that martyrdom is not only glorious, but desirable.

Many a time, military recruitment presents one with an opportunity to alter one’s life chances. While most middle and upper class families shun a military career and prefer to enroll their children in prestigious universities by all means for better futures, youths who grow up in neighbourhoods racked by poverty, joblessness and hopelessness often consider military service as a viable venue for upward social mobility.

colin powell 01This has been the case for many African-Americans of humble origins, and Colin Powell’s (left) senior appointments in the US military were no small feat by any standard.

It may not be fair to criticise the upper and middle classes of eschewing military careers. Still, it is certainly no coincidence that only 1 percent of US representatives and senators have a child in uniform, while less than 1 percent of Ivy League graduates opt to serve in the US military.

On the other hand, poverty and social exclusion explain a great deal about why the blacks make up 24 percent of the US army, although they only represent less than 15 percent of the overall US population.

And those sent to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq by the US and British governments are, more often than not, sons of relatively poor parents. Can one imagine Britain dispatching Prince Charles or either of his two sons, William and Harry, to the frontline? Aristocrats in the British army have always been few and far between.

military malaysia army tentera 131106 anti aircraftAt the risk of being politically incorrect, I would argue the British Empire would not have reached its zenith without the sweat and blood of the downtrodden Englishmen, Irishmen, Welshmen and Scotsmen.

Even in China, outstanding military men are most likely to have come from the underclass. Ban Chao, a brilliant student during the Han Dynasty, ditched a promising scholarship and joined the military due to extreme poverty. He rose to become an excellent cavalry commander in Chinese history.

Had it not been the incessant wars, social unrests and great uncertainties, Jiang Baili of the late Qing era could have made it to become a high official in the Manchurian court. Instead, he entered military academies and later established himself as a highly respected military strategist and adviser to Chiang Kai-shek.

Military reflects racism and class dofferences

What does all this tell us? First of all, the military reflects racism and class differences, and staggeringly so. Roman Caesars exploited the Africans and the Middle Easterners for their imperial ambitions, while the Japanese army forcibly conscripted poor kids to fight the formidable Americans during World War II.

military malaysia army tentera 131106 jungleBut the conscious effort by the ruling elites to ethnicise the state apparatus and the military has given rise to the pervasive indifference and even resentment among the others. Can one blame the Chinese or the Indian parent for not sending his/her child to train as a soldier?

Being a fundamentalist liberal myself, neither race nor nation will be where my ultimate loyalty lies, but I do respect others’ right to swear their allegiance to a country from where they draw strength and inspiration.

But a real patriot must be more than just a young man or woman who is blindly beholden to mendacious and corrupt political leaders. He or she must be able to expose the wrongs and the crooks in the nation that he or she loves without fear or favour, which is far more important than joining the military under the delusion of a bankrupt state ideology.

Joseph Goebbels once said that “the common man hates war, but he will follow you into war if you convince him he is threatened, and tell him often enough that he is not patriotic enough”.

JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.


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