The phrase “My country, right or wrong!” is known to all of us. To some of us, it represents the epitome of patriotism. To others, it may represent the worst of knee-jerk, right-wing, so-called, “patriotism.” I had always, correctly-enough, attributed the phrase to Stephen Decatur, naval hero, captain at age twenty-five, and one of the fathers of the US Navy. The phrase was spoken by Decatur as part of a warrior’s toast:
“Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.”
The phrase is also central to a quote from Carl Shurz, Union Army General, later US Senator, and, still later, US Secretary of the Interior:
“My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
It seems obvious to me that General Shurz was consciously referring to the famous quote from Stephen Decatur, and that he intentionally used it to focus upon what he considered to be a concise definition of responsible patriotism.
These two quotes have been used to introduce any number of writings on the general topic of patriotism, but only one or the other, depending on the writer’s purpose. I am using both. I should note also that both Decatur and Shurz seem to be using the term “country” as identical to the government of the country. I will continue that meaning in this piece, but I should say also that some of my favorite “love of country and homeland” works were by persons who had no great affection for the governments of their homelands.
Decatur’s toast might be inflated in its implications, intended for effect, but it is also possible that Decatur meant exactly what he said. I believe Shurz meant what he said.
There are two kinds of people – those who divide things into categories, and those who do not. I do. I would divide those who care what their country is and what it does (and this is not everybody) into four categories:
1. Those who deny any possibility that their country might commit misdeeds or missteps, and who ignore any evidence to the contrary.
2. Those who are aware, but who consider themselves honor-bound to be loyal and obedient until and unless they become the decision-maker, or unless the decision-maker consults them, in which case they would exercise their best judgment.
3. Those who love their country but are aware of misdeeds and missteps, who wish to hold their country to its best values, and who therefore feel compelled to speak truth to power.
4. Those who renounce, deny, or reject their country upon evidence of misdeeds and missteps.
I belong to Category 3, but feel great respect and kinship for Category 2. I have more friends in Category 2 than in Category 3, and none at all in Categories 1 and 4.
I retired from the US Army over 30 years ago, my last four years having been on the faculty of the US Army Military Police School. In my time, USAMPS was, in effect, a joint Army-Marine Corps school. Marines comprised perhaps 20-30% of the faculty, and about an equivalent percentage of students. There were token faculty members from other US and allied services, as well as some students from other US and foreign services. I have tremendous admiration and affection for Marines. Marines are nothing like the caricatures and stereotypes one encounters in Marine jokes. Marines are intelligent, resourceful, responsible, and courageous. I would compare Marines to my impression of Jesuits. Marines consider themselves the President’s ultimate loyal force. Jesuits are also intelligent, resourceful, responsible, and courageous, and they, at least at one time (at least as I understand it), considered themselves the Pope’s ultimate loyal force (the Vatican Swiss Guard being merely a ceremonial force). Both Marines and Jesuits arrived at their frames of reference via a leap of faith. They committed themselves to what they were going to believe, adopted a frame of reference and set of assumptions, within which they could then apply the full range of their intellects and resources. Most of my Marine colleagues understood themselves to be committed to personal loyalty to the president. Some have told me that they could never vote against an incumbent president because to do so would be disloyal. On the other hand, I have never known either a Jesuit or a Marine who was unaware when a superior did something really stupid, or who would deny that superior his best counsel if asked. On one occasion, I made a close Marine friend, a colleague of my own rank, uncomfortable – perhaps even lost his friendship – by confronting a superior who, for reasons of ego, made a decision detrimental to both the mission and the morale of the organization. It was clear that my Marine colleague considered my action unseemly, to say the least. I describe Marines in such detail in order to contrast the Marine as the epitome of Category 2 and myself as a representative of Category 3.
My purpose today is to suggest how great the affinity between Categories 2 and 3 might be. I suggest that both categories are comprised of persons who want the beloved country to live up to its best values. I suggest that the only difference between the person who feels compelled to speak truth (as best he understands it) to power, and the person who feels compelled to remain silent until an opportunity arises to make his understandings known in a proper and diplomatic fashion, is the individual’s internalization of values as to what is proper and seemly. I suggest that those who speak out regarding misdeeds and missteps, and those who silently deplore those same misdeeds and missteps, are not adversaries, but are kindred souls with differing value formation as to what is seemly. Category 2 might ponder whether, in some cases, a higher loyalty might require speaking out. Category 3 persons, such as I, might ponder exercising a little restraint. I have no advice for Categories 1 and 4, nor would they be receptive.