Political laziness and ignorance are largely behind the use of such terms as ‘patriots’ and ‘nationalists’, interchangeably. While both intrinsically link the relationship of a citizen to the nation, the differences are stark both in terms of usage and the implied import.
The American journalist, Sidney Harris, has remarked, “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, while the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to a war”.
This suggests a definite supremacy and intolerance attached to the nationalist, whereas an overarching sense of duty and service can be attributed to the patriot, who could disagree with any action of the state, without any erosion of their loyalty or fidelity to the state.
Clearly, the patriot is a more democratic, value-based and intellectual being who has the humility to correct himself whenever required. The nationalist is naturally contemptuous, intolerant and brooks no questions. As George Orwell has written nationalism “is the worst enemy of peace”. Globally, the nationalist voices are asserting their dominance, and this phenomenon is so powerful that it is consuming even the most patriotic of the professions i.e. the ‘Uniformed Soldiers’ of the state.
Research in the USA shows that historically and consistently, the Republican Party has held a substantial lead over the Democrats in the partisan affiliation of the sizeable and influential ‘Veteran’ community. The US ‘Veterans’ had voted in 2-1 ratio in favour of Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential elections. The inherent conservatism of the Republicans and the additional no-holds-barred bombast of Trump, like ‘America First’, had afforded a more ‘nationalistic’ credential to his candidature, as opposed to that of Hillary Clinton in the minds of the Veterans.
Even the obvious trends that pointed Trump’s sincerity towards the Veterans, were lost in the melee and momentum of the moment. Trump’s pitch then swerved the Republican campaign from traditional patriotism to brazen nationalism, but the fine print of transgression went essentially unnoticed. The TV actor-businessman who had managed to defer the draft during the Vietnam War, became the preferred nominee for the Commander-in-Chief of the US Forces.
The miscalculation regrading matters concerning the Veterans during Trump’s successful campaign had included lampooning his fellow-Republican John McCain’s war heroics, brazenly criticising the fallen- US-soldier Captain Humayun Khan’s parents and taunting the Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as weak.
Later as President, Donald Trump debunked the various conventions and precedents of political sobriety as he insisted on adopting and appropriating the adjective, ‘Nationalist’ ~ a word that had the connotation of a historical baggage of extremism and racism, as opposed to the profound inclusivity and humility as a ‘Patriot’. Knowing fully well the implications of his statement, Trump had stated, “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, O.K.? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!”
Some sagacious Veterans like Senator John McCain had read the writing on the wall of Trump’s inevitable tripping from postured patriotism towards that of craven and wanton nationalism. As Trump went about rubbishing the past leaderships, policies and positions of the state, McCain stated presciently, “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism”. To be Donald Trump, in other words, is “unpatriotic.”
Recently, none less than the Retired Admiral William McRaven, one of the most revered and decorated warriors who had led the Navy SEAL and Special Operations Command Force that had captured Saddam Hussein and later killed Osama bin Laden, faced the brunt of ‘nationalist’ Donald Trump. In an unprecedented narrowness of spirit and partisanship, Trump had mocked McRaven as a ‘Hillary Clinton fan’, ‘Obama backer’ and suggested that the four-star warrior, currently battling leukemia should have caught Osama bin Laden much earlier, implying professional incompetence.
The forthright soldier, who believed in ‘leaving no man behind’ had referred to Trump’s bullying of former CIA Director John Brennan, after the President had revoked Brennan’s ‘security clearance’. McRaven firmly reiterated a soldier’s apolitical mandate by stating, “I admire all Presidents, regardless of their political party, who uphold the dignity of the office and who use that office to bring the nation together in challenging times” and then added for good measure that Trump had, “embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation”.
The recent politicisation of the US Armed Forces by sending the soldiers to the Mexico border to stop the ‘invasion’ by ‘unknown Middle Easterners’ has incurred the wrath of many self-respecting, professional and apolitical Veterans. Already the Veterans in the Trump administration like the Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, or Chief of Staff John Kelly are in an uncomfortable quandary over Trump’s policies.
They have been publicly derided, whenever they have held positions in variance to those of the intolerant and whimsical Presidents Globally the natural gravitation of the Veterans community towards the political classes that espouse ‘nationalism’ is instinctively understandable. However, the ability to sift the wheat of Patriotism from the toxic chaff of Nationalism is imperative and often, missed. Leaders who use the imagery of their military to build their own political strength denude the apolitical dignity of the soldier in the long run.
Mixing partisan politics and military is a terribly dangerous idea, and when Michelle Obama said that she wouldn’t forgive Trump for the innuendos on Barack Obama’s birthplace, Trump retorted with a wholly irrelevant, misplaced and unwarranted contextualising of the soldier by retaliating that he wouldn’t forgive Obama for, “what he did to our military”. Sadly a large segment of the population and the Veterans community still remain impressed with this vacuous ‘nationalism’.
The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.