Night the War Began We Took Down Our Flag
April 19, 2003
By Jeff Rosenzweig
My wife and I are Americans. We live in Toronto, Canada,
a city whose metropolitan area population is roughly equivalent
to Baghdad’s. Today’s Toronto is a sprawling metropolis, said
to be the most multicultural city in the world. But in 1813
it was a muddy frontier town of about 700 people, and was
known as York.
During the War of 1812 York was attacked by American forces.
On April 27, 1813, fourteen warships carrying 1700 troops
approached from the New York side of Lake Ontario. The Americans
had little difficulty overwhelming the defending British forces.
The British withdrew from the area, but not before sabotaging
the powder magazine of Fort York, the under-funded and under-fortified
military outpost at York. It may have contained as many as
500 barrels of gunpowder. As the Americans entered the abandoned
fort, the magazine exploded, raining masonry down on the invaders.
257 American soldiers were wounded and 55 were killed, including
the field commander Zebulon Pike, for whom Pike’s Peak is
named. The Americans burned York’s parliament buildings, looted
private houses and harassed civilians for five days before
sailing away. During the occupation, the Stars and Stripes
flew over the town, much to the chagrin of the locals. That
same flag, though with fifty stars, has hung on our front
porch since September 11, 2001.
As Americans living abroad we stubbornly cling to our nationality.
Many of our Canadian friends find this reflexive patriotism
amusing and perhaps appalling, Canada being a nation where
overt displays of nationalism are generally reserved for hockey
games and beer commercials. In this diffident milieu, we retain
a love of our country, and we love the flag for the distinctly
American ideals it represents. We believe too that the flag
belongs to all Americans, liberal or conservative, activist
or apathetic, dove or hawk.
At its best, American patriotism revels in community, a commonality
founded on tolerance and diversity. At its worst, it is reduced
to unthinking slogans like “my country, right or wrong.” Those
inclined to the latter view invariably resort to impugning
the patriotism of liberals. It’s easier than making a reasoned
argument, after all. Just as many fools believe Iraq had something
to do with the destruction of the Twin Towers, many believe
that liberals cannot be patriots. They are mistaken on both
Leftist patriots believe that if your country is wrong, you
make it right. If your government commits barbaric acts, you
dissent. If your government trumps up a war of aggression
on a rationale of untruths and spurious connections between
unrelated evils, you protest. If your government lies to you,
you object. If your country’s actions debase the ideals on
which it was founded, you burn with the kind of shame and
anger that prompts you to take down your flag.
A few days before Mr. Bush’s sequel to his father’s Persian
Gulf misadventures, we discussed what our flag might signify
to passersby. Rather than proclaiming us proud Americans,
it might signify that we support an administration which arbitrarily
chose to invade a sovereign nation in defiance of the United
Nations charter, to preempt threats it had failed utterly
to document, to kill Iraqi civilians while a pinstriped brigade
of spokespersons reiterate endlessly to a sceptical international
audience the extraordinary steps being taken to avoid doing
We did not want Torontonians of Iraqi descent to experience
revulsion if they happened to pass our house. We did not want
our patriotism associated with lawlessness and lies. We did
not want our foreign neighbors to mistake us for ugly Americans.
So the bombing began and our flag came down.
Three weeks later, the tenor of the television coverage indicates
that we have “won” the war. In a vignette guaranteed to warm
the hearts of cable news programmers, a statue of Saddam Hussein
in central Baghdad has been toppled. It’s difficult to believe
that the Iraqis and the American soldiers involved in the
toppling couldn’t find more urgent priorities to be addressed,
but no matter. The coming days will echo with the sounds of
celebration in Baghdad and Boston, Basra and Boise. Iraq will
be tidied up for the cameras while Mr. Bush’s chickenhawks
gloat for the television pundits and heap encomia on their
man Dubya. Saddam’s chimerical weapons of mass destruction
will get nary a mention. Turns out Iraqi liberation was what
it was all about.
The hundreds of thousands of Americans who marched in the
streets to decry this war and the millions of Americans who
agreed with them will join the other irrelevant collateral
damage of the New World Order: the First Amendment, the United
Nations, the international sympathy and support generously
offered to America in the aftermath of September 11, and of
course thousands of Iraqi civilians who paid for their liberation
with their limbs or their lives.
Sometime in the near future, once Big Oil and the rest of
the corporate carpetbaggers have replaced Saddam’s stranglehold
on his country with their own greasy grasp, most Americans
will forget Iraq, as they have forgotten Afghanistan, Grenada,
Panama, Nicaragua and Vietnam. The country singers now riding
high on the charts with their whoop-ass anthems will return
to well-deserved obscurity. Karl Rove and company will hunker
down in the West Wing to figure out how the next urgent military
campaign should be spun to keep the boss’s approval ratings
up for the next election. The troops will come home – for
a while – while the GOP moves to slash veterans’ benefits
and other spending priorities less important than another
tax cut for the wealthy.
And Old Glory will wave across America. It will be saluted
and pledged allegiance to, it will adorn car bumpers and T-shirts,
it will figure prominently behind Mr. Bush as he takes to
the podium to tell new lies to a somnolent Congress and a
nation desperate for certainty. It will move some to pride,
others to grief. But it will not fly in front of our house
again until we can somehow overcome our shame for what our
country has done. Unnecessarily, tragically, the flag has
been stained with innocent blood, and we refuse to revel in