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The 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 counts.

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 just that.

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 it.

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