I have never understood what is meant by the word “patriotism”. It is a common enough word, especially on Memorial Day and during times of war, and it is a word that seems to suggest certain meanings. But whenever I try to nail down any set of specific meanings, I soon run into problems.

The best way to understand the meaning of a word is to examine how the word is most commonly used. On Memorial Day here in the US the word is generally applied to military veterans; particularly to those who have fought in a war and have, therefore, risked their lives as part of their military service. So we can guess that one meaning of patriotism is the willingnes to put one’s life on the line for one’s country.

But this raises a number of questions.

Is it always the case that being a soldier and fighting in a war is in the best interest of one’s country? For example, when fascist Italy attacked Ethiopia and Greece, and allied itself with Germany, the end result was the utter destruction of Italy, great suffering for its people, and the wiping out of its economy. These were, in general terms, foreseeable consequences. So in that case should we regard the soldiers as patriotic? Wouldn’t it be at least as reasonable to say that those who actively fought against Italian fascism through the 1930s and during the war were the actual patriots? Because, after all, had they had the ability to achieve their aim, the end of the fascist state, it is at least possible that Italians would not have suffered as they did.

But if we make such a distinction, between patriotic military service and patriotic opposition to one’s own military, what does that do to our idea that patriotism is the willingness to die for one’s country? It seems that we have to judge each act on the basis of whether that act really benefits one’s country, or not. We cannot merely place all soldiers into a group and call that group patriotic. If we conclude, for example, that the Viet Nam war was either a terrible disaster or a massive war crime on the part of the United States, and if we assert that because there was massive opposition to the war, in which both of those attributes of the war were made public knowledge, then we would have to forever exclude Viet Nam veterans from the rolls of the patriotic.

Of course, those who most use the word “patriotism” would make no such distinctions - and that should tell us something about the concept of patriotism. In fact, it tells us that patriotism can be understood as allegiance to the State; the “State” to be understood as the military and the rest of the security apparatus. This is most apparent in the runup to and early period of any of the many wars initiated and fought by the US since the second world war. Opponents of these wars have invariably been labeled as unpatriotic by both conservative and liberal political leaders and their followers. And conservatives continue to label opponents of the war as unpatriotic, even as their liberal counterparts have come to realize, belatedly, that once again the war is a “disaster” and a “failure”, and “poorly planned.” And both conservative and liberal leaders and their followers continue to label as unpatriotic those who characterize the war as a war crime or a crime against humanity.

And this, I think, is the core meaning of the word “patriotism”: blind allegiance to the State; “my country, right or wrong.” If that is so, then it seems fair to ask whether patriotism should be thought of as desirable. Is it admirable or virtuous to be patriotic? Is it ethical to be so? If one’s country, one’s miilitary, is daily committing atrocities, it is patriotic to fully support that military, and therefore those atrocities. It is even patriotic to commit those atrocities, if the atrocities are part of State policy and not mere aberrations carried out by rogue soldiers. But it is not ethical to do so, so ethics and patriotism clash. You can have one but not the other. You have to choose.

There are more anodyne senses of the word “patriotism”, of course. In fact, if asked, I think many people would say that patriotism means love of one’s country. And who could be against that?

But this merely pushes the problem back one step. For what is meant by “one’s country?” For the reasons given above, it can’t mean one’s government. Perhaps it means something like one’s culture, or the beauty of the landscape, or the quality of the people. But in any country of sufficient size it is almost meaningless to talk about the “culture” of that country, for there are likely many cultures, or none. Even in relatively homogeneous contries like Japan there are many cultures: the low-brow, the traditional, the westernized; a culture for the very ypung, the merely young, the not so young, and the elderly.

And surely love of one’s country cannot mean love of its landscape. Why would that be something to aspire to? Would it be patriotic to love the Rocky mountains, and to deride the beauty of the Alps? Ridiculous.

More realistically, perhaps patriotism is the belief that one’s fellow countrymen are kinder, or more generous, or more hard-working, or more honest than those in other countries. But if so, this would mean that only those in a handful of countries would be entitled to be patriotic. For, after all, only one country can have the most generous people, or the most honest, and so on. And even those lucky ones living in one of those “best” countries would need to re-examine the facts every year to determine whether they are still the most hard-working or most generous. And if not, so much for patriotism!

No. These cannot be the attributes intended by “patriotism”. So I come back to the idea that patriotism means allegiance to the State. And this is something that I reject utterly. I place ethics and justice above such allegiance.