Blogs > HNN > Lawrence S. Wittner: Review of Contesting Patriotism: Culture, Power, and Strategy in the Peace Movement By Lynne M. Woehrle, Patrick G. Coy and Gregory M. Maney (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008)

May 31, 2009 2:36 pm

Lawrence S. Wittner: Review of Contesting Patriotism: Culture, Power, and Strategy in the Peace Movement By Lynne M. Woehrle, Patrick G. Coy and Gregory M. Maney (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008)

[Lawrence S.Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book, "Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement," will be published this June by Stanford University Press.]

For many years, government officials have been able to count upon patriotic appeals to overwhelm the public's desire for peace.

"Of course the people don't want war," Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering remarked during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. "But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along. . . . All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism. . . . It works the same in any country."

That is pretty much what the American journalist Randolph Bourne concluded as he watched rival nations plunge into the bloodbath of World War I. "War is the health of the State," he wrote bitterly. "It automatically sets in motion . . . those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals who lack the larger herd sense. Loyalty—or mystic devotion to the State—becomes the major imagined human value."

Nevertheless, in Contesting Patriotism, Lynne Woehrle (a sociologist), Patrick Coy (a political scientist), and Gregory Maney (a sociologist) argue that, although trumpeting a patriotic message still provides government officials with considerable advantages in securing their objectives, in recent years peace organizations have become more effective in countering it. This study, they observe, reveals "the creative and increasingly sophisticated ways that the U.S. peace movement has contested dominant constructions of patriotism."

The authors' original research data is comprised of press and media releases, printed statements, editorials, and calls to action produced by fifteen U.S. peace organizations in response to overseas military actions undertaken by the U.S. government from 1990 to 2005. These actions include the Gulf War, the 1998 conflict with Iraq, the Kosovo intervention, the response to the 9/11 attacks, and the Iraq War. The authors also tap a broad range of social science and history monographs.

Drawing on Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony—in which holders of power utilize familiar, authoritative ideas to present issues in ways that advance their policy agendas and discourage dissent—Woehrle, Coy, and Maney show how peace organizations sometimes challenged this hegemony, at other times harnessed it for their own purposes, and at yet other times employed a combination of these two approaches. Dangers accompanied both challenging and harnessing. By directly challenging the dominant discourse, peace groups risked ridicule, active opposition from the public and policymakers, and their overall marginalization. On the other hand, the more subtle, harnessing approach risked demoralizing core supporters, increasing the potency of the dominant discourse, and diluting the cause to the point at which victory would be meaningless.

One illustration of how these processes work emerged in the peace movement's handling of the role of U.S. soldiers in the Iraq War. Given the American public's generally laudatory view of U.S. troops, the authors note, "many peace groups consistently tried to make distinctions between the troops and those actually in charge of policy." To be sure, during the early days of the conflict and the revelations of the torture of Iraqi prisoners, some groups adopted a confrontational approach. But, overall, U.S. peace groups worked to harness support for the troops to a critique of the war. Thus, for example, Peace Action declared: "In committing our troops to fight a war of aggression, outside the rule of law, Bush has, in an act of malfeasance, put US troops at risk unnecessarily. We believe the best way to support our troops is to bring them home now and pursue the alternatives to war that other nations and world leaders still believe are possible."

The chapter on "Reconstructing Patriotism" is particularly interesting, for it shows how nationalist ideas used by power holders in government and beyond to stir up opposition to peace groups were addressed by the movement, either through direct challenging or creative harnessing. Thus, for example, the hegemonic idea that the United States is a bastion of freedom was challenged by those who depicted it as an oppressive empire and harnessed by those who argued that the United States, as a decent nation, should lead by example. Or, in yet another example, the nationalist idea that critics of war are traitors was challenged by those who said that Americans should be ashamed of their nation's behavior and harnessed by those claiming that dissent from bad policies represented the highest form of patriotism.

Contesting Patriotism also deftly covers other key issues, including the role of emotions, religion, identity politics, national security, and international pressures in peace appeals. In addition, an appendix provides useful profiles of the fifteen U.S. peace organizations studied.

Overall, the book amply supports the authors' contention of growing sophistication in adapting peace movement discourse to the claims of patriotism. Specifically, they argue, peace groups reshaped patriotism "to represent a global vision, compassion for those who are different, judicious use of power, preference for peaceful alternatives, privileging of diplomacy in times of conflict, protection of civil liberties and human rights, willingness to dissent in times of destructive leadership, and cooperation instead of imperialism."

Of course, critics might argue that public discourse is not the only—or even the main—problem faced by peace organizations. Even so, ideas are important, especially when they are undergirded by powerful nationalist assumptions. In 1900, justifying the U.S. military conquest of the Philippines, Senator Albert Beveridge proclaimed that "God . . . has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. . . . He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. . . . And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation."

Have Americans really departed very far from this belief that they are the divinely-chosen rulers of savage peoples? Alas, they have not, and the fact that such ideas can be confronted more effectively now than in the past by a portion of the public augurs well for the future of American and world civilization.

In summary, readers will find that Contesting Patriotism provides an intellectually complex, nuanced analysis of the conflicting uses of patriotism by war and peace forces in the modern world. Scholars, peace activists, government officials, and members of the general public can learn much from it.

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