For Love of Country or Love of Humanity?

By Chuck Fisher
Peace & Justice Editor

General George Patton once said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” A straightforward, logical assessment, but who is that “bastard” you’re killing? Someone’s father, son, daughter, aunt, brother? This was the point being made by Retired General Richard O’Meara on September 23 2009. General O’Meara came to Marywood that night to speak about the fine balance between patriotically loving one’s country and abusing human rights.

Richard O’Meara served in the Vietnam War after which he earned his law degree and joined the Judge Advocate General Corps, a.k.a. the JAG Corp. He’s traveled to “human rights hotspots” around the world including Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Northern Ireland. He has visited places where unthinkable acts of human cruelty have taken place. In 2004, he and a group of retired generals wrote a letter to George W. Bush, urging the president to investigate and address alleged human rights abuses of detainees by the US military, citing the events at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. He currently teaches Human Rights and History courses at three colleges in New Jersey as well as traveling and giving guest lectures.

Mr. O’Meara’s presentation focused around the concept of nationalism and it’s relation to human rights. According to Mr. O’Meara, we are a civilization built around nations and countries because nations are the “preferred method of government.” Living in a country can help to guarantee the most fundamental human right, security. Unfortunately, we sometimes take our love of country too far. Ultra-nationalists sometimes see those who aren’t their countrymen not just as an enemy but as something less than human. By removing an element of humanity from your enemy, you no longer have to treat them as human and can be as cruel as you like to them. In Mr. O’Meara’s words, “Human rights leaders dislike nationalism.”

Much of the General’s discussion about nationalism focused on relations in Northern Ireland, where he spent time as an observer and advisor. He recounted several stories from his time in Ireland about the violence between the Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists seeking to keep divided and unite Ireland, respectively. He detailed the random murder of a taxi driver in the early ‘90s by paramilitary forces just because the man was a Catholic. To illustrate the extent and long history of human rights abuses in Ireland as a whole, Mr. O’Meara donned an American Civil War uniform and read an account of an Irishman named John Patrick Joy who suffered through and lost his family to the Potato Famine in the 1840s and ‘50s before leaving for America and joining the army. The British nation failed to recognize the Irish nation as human beings during the famine and even continued to export food out of their country during the worst years of hunger. The failure to recognize humanity bred an enmity which continued through the 1990s and killed thousands of people. Violence in Ireland has declined to almost zero in the last few years with Unionists and Nationalists signing peace agreements and jointly sharing in the country’s economic prosperity creating the so called, “Celtic Tiger” of an economy. Despite the recent peace and prosperity, Mr. O’Meara quoted Gerry Adams, a prominent Republican Nationalist, who recently said, “The single most important issue… the unifying of Ireland.” The General hinted that with how the history of Irish Nationalism has played out in the past, Ireland is not immune to future violence.

Although violence was terrible in Ireland, even more horrific things have happened in other parts of the world. Rwanda, a country Mr. O’Meara visited in 1998, saw 800,000 to 1,000,000 ethnic Tutsis slaughtered by Nationalist Hutus in 1994, making it one of, if not the worst genocide in modern times. Mr. O’Meara was asked to teach the Rwandans how to organize and prosecute human rights cases because, “All of their lawyers were dead.” The Rwandan Genocide is well known to Americans because of the movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” which chronicled some of the worst abuses. Mr. O’Meara also took this time to briefly mention the violence in Sierra Leone chronicled in the movie, “Blood Diamond.” He quoted another source saying, “It seems that you don’t have a real problem in your country unless they make a movie about it.” This led him to a point about a failed recognition of genocides and human rights violations around the world. Cambodia lost more than a million people during the time of the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot during the late 1970s. Few Americans today know of this genocide and probably as just as few knew about it when it was happening. The genocide was only halted when the Vietnamese army invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. The United Nations did nothing to halt the killing while it was going on leading many Cambodians to resent the organization to this day. Nationalism on the part of the participants caused the genocide, while apathy and nationalism on the part of the United Nations allowed it to continue.

Nationalism isn’t a bad thing; it’s ubiquitous to the whole world. General Richard O’Meara’s point was that, although we must love our country, we must also look beyond our national self-interest and recognize the world as a whole. We’re all on this rock together and there are no national boundaries etched in stone. We’re the ones who put them there and we need to recognize when we need to take them away.