While the nation marks Patriot Day, President Obama is campaigning to persuade members of Congress that they should support his proposed air strike on Syria. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed support for the strike, while partisans in both camps are in opposition.
A question we could ask on Patriot Day, which marks the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is which group is the patriotic one? Is it more patriotic to support the president or oppose him?
The answer is difficult. Aren’t patriots on both sides of this issue? Sens. John McCain and Harry Reid, as well as Speaker of the House John Boehner, for example, support the president. At the same time, the strike is opposed by the chairs of the House Armed Services Committee and the Homeland Security Committee, as well as the chair of the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
That is the point. There is no “patriotic” position. People who love this country respectfully disagree on this action.
Unfortunately, that question of a “patriotic stance” on military action has been raised in the past. In World War I, laws were passed by Congress to ban public opposition to the war. Opponents were jailed for expressing their views against U.S. involvement in the war.
During the Vietnam War, those who disagreed with the war were labeled unpatriotic. Opposition to the war sometimes was equated with opposition to God. In Utah, I remember church talks where Vietnam protesters were often compared with the kingmen in the Book of Mormon who opposed Captain Moroni and refused to fight.
More recently, patriotism has been viewed as one-sided. In the wake of 9/11, it is no coincidence that the legislation greatly expanding the power of the federal government to engage in domestic spying to fight the war on terror was called “The Patriot Act.” The implication was clear — those who opposed the act were not patriotic. Indeed, questioning whether the actions taken by the government such as wiretapping, targeting groups that were not terrorist-related but had Islamic ties, and installing airport full body scanners were necessary or even constitutional became grounds for suspicion of lack of patriotism.
Too often in the past, proponents of a particular military action have labeled their opponents as unpatriotic. Supporting or opposing military action should not be equated with patriotism. Such an approach limits the ability of the nation to have a free and open public debate on whether to commit U.S. troops to action. Without that debate, a democracy is meaningless.
The same can be said about continuing military action once it is undertaken. If Congress voted to support a Syria strike, those who are in opposition have the right to continue to express their dissent towards the government’s actions. And they should be able to do so without being branded as unsupportive of the troops or hostile to the military. The American public does not need to make one final decision about whether to go to war. We can decide we want to withdraw from a conflict if we choose to do so. Without that ability, the people no longer govern.
U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, like Vietnam a generation earlier, came about because Americans determined that the wars they were waging were not worth the blood and treasure being expended for them. That public deliberation over a war is the hallmark of a democratic society and is the envy of hundreds of millions of people who live in nations where such debates are not allowed.
Nor is it unsupportive of the troops in the field to debate whether a war should be ended. The American public has the right to determine the direction of the nation, including what our troops do in our name and whether they continue to do so. Indeed, a public that is concerned about whether U.S. troops should continue to be in harm’s way for a policy the public does not support are far from unpatriotic.
Who is a patriot? It is someone who agrees with your particular political views, even on war, as well as the person who disagrees with them. Patriots come with various political views, ideologies, and partisan affiliations. That is something worth remembering on Patriot Day.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.