Should one always agree with the government at a time of war to be a patriotic citizen?
War should never be 'agreed with' in the sense you mean in your question. It is, was, and probably
ever shall be, one of the great chimeras of the human condition. Whether fought for religion, ideology,
or pure aggression, it brings with it misery, pain, suffering, and countless deaths. Witness the
dropping of the two atomic bombs. There is something sinister in the human psyche when a senior
military figure can say after the use of laser-guided weapons during the First Gulf War 'We have
raised war to an art form.' The last century saw two world wars fought against tyranny and
oppression, only to replace that tyranny and oppression with the Damocletian Sword of the nuclear
threat, the spread of the same ideologies cloaked in a different guise, and the pursuit of power and
wealth through neo-liberal capitalism and economic globalisation. Wars destroy people, cities,
countries, the environment and corrupt the inherent orientation toward the good in the human
The human consciousness is the only one in the animal kingdom that kills without the need through a
free act of the will. The weapons of war grow more and more sophisticated, more and more deadly,
more and more destructive — it is in the nature of the human species to pursue assiduously the
development of more and more terrible ways of destroying itself And all kinds of wars are justified for
all kinds of reasons. Perhaps in the light of all this, the more patriotic stance to adopt is one of
peaceful, non-violent disagreement with a country at war and to make the stand for equitable peace
with justice. Idealistic, perhaps, nave perhaps, romantic perhaps, even foolish perhaps — but as the
O Jays once sang, 'War, what is good for? Absolutely nothing!'. The defeat of Nazism has not
stopped the spread of extreme right-wing fascism; it has not stopped human rights abuses; it has not
stopped racism; it has not stopped hunger and suffering. The short answer to your question, Ranjeev,
is: in supporting a war we may be being unpatriotic and perhaps even in the process of losing the little
remnant of humanity the world has left at the moment.
Fr Seamus Mulholland OFM
Patriotism is loyalty to one's nation. To be unpatriotic is to be disloyal, and disloyalty is a vice.
We also have a prima facie moral duty to obey the state, that is to say, to obey the laws decreed by
whichever authority has earned the right, through democratic election or otherwise, to pass laws and
to enforce them through the judiciary and the police.
However, these are distinct moral duties. Civil disobedience is not necessarily unpatriotic, if, for
example, you are someone who believes that the government has made a decision (e.g. to go to war)
which you believe to be morally wrong.
Whilst I agree that War is always a bad thing, I do not agree that all wars are wrong. Therefore I can't
agree that we should always object to war. War is always bad because it leads to human suffering
and possibly death. These are uncontroversially bad. However the treatment of a cancer may also
lead to suffering and possibly death, this too is a bad thing. We accept the latter as a fair
compromise; yes treatment causes suffering, but that suffering is necessary to stand a reasonable
chance of surviving the illness. Likewise war can be a necessary evil.
There are wars which are just and there are unjust wars. A paradigm just war is the defence of your
nation from an aggressor. To suggest that France ought not to have entered war with Germany in
1939 is just wrong. They were being attacked and they had the right to self defence, a patriotic citizen
had every reason to support that war. Likewise we (Britain) had every right to defend France and
Poland, both as duty under treaties, for self defence, and because it was the right thing to do. I accept
that many wars are unjust and therefore we ought not to support them but not all wars are.
If a war is just then we ought to support it, however if the war is unjust then I don't think the issue is
whether we ought to be patriotic or not but whether it is right to support it or not. Given that we believe
a war to be unjust we ought to oppose it, patriotism just doesn't enter the issue. We need to act on
what is right, and this duty is one that goes beyond any duty to a civil government. Patriotism is a
strange force and one I think can be unhelpful, it appears to asks us to support our government,
purely because it is our country, not because it is the right thing to do. Taking a more abstract
definition patriotism could be defined as loyalty to a nation, not to the government of that nation. By
differentiating the government from the abstract nation, it would indeed possible to oppose an unjust
war patriotically. This however leaves the potential that the nation's interests may be best served, by
going to war for an unjust cause. And I assert that we ought to support what is right over and above
the interests of the state, or even the individual.