Pro patria mori

March 22, 2021 08:58
Photo: Xinhua

The Latin phrase Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori translates roughly as ‘It is a sweet and glorious thing to die for one’s country.’

But why would you want to die for your country? Especially if it is someone else bidding you to do so.

I understand the phrase to means that it is a glorious thing to be prepared to die for one’s country.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of a patriot is one who loves his country and is prepared to defend it against an enemy which, falls a trifle short of a willingness to sacrifice one’s life in the endeavor.

I concede that if you are willing to defend your country in armed conflict against an enemy there is always the possibility that you may be killed whilst so engaged, but that still falls demonstrably short of considering it noble to die in the attempt.

History is replete with individuals who are venerated because, it is said, they died for their country. Yet close examination of the circumstances in which these heroic figures met their end tends to indicate that the object of their personal sacrifice was on behalf of those far more proximate than the tenuous concept of a country.

The Bible is the source of the most famous phrase ‘Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends.’ The proximity of those for whom one is prepared to die is much closer to home than a geographical construct.

Start from basics: the word patriot is derived from pater, the Latin word for a father.

Much of history was written by male historians writing about societies in which the patriarch was pre-eminent. Yet the basic nuclear family revolves around the mother, father and children.

Had historians been less male-centric, it would probably have been matriotism, and we would be talking about matriots rather than patriots.

Oedipus complexities aside, the closest natural affection in the human race is love of one’s mother. She is the one who nurtures the child in the womb, gives birth, suckles it and provides the earliest cocoon of care and love in which the child grows.

This is both biological and environmental.

A not dissimilar affinity occurs as between siblings. Early rivalries notwithstanding, a sister or brother will go to the aid of their kindred facing an external threat.

Love, within the context of the nuclear family is natural and normal.

Now let us examine a non-biological relationship which also generates a fierce, protective instinct of loyalty: that which exists between soldiers.

Take a military unit of a regiment comprising approximately 800 soldiers sub-divided into 100 strong companies, 25 man platoons and 6 man sections. Regiments are identified by name or number.

Armies have centuries of traditions of regiments formed from a defined geographical territory. Broad and local cultural associations gave these units a cohesive identity which was cultivated to develop esprit de corps.

The young soldier on first being recruited into such a unit would soon be steeped in his regiment’s history of distinctive service.

The aim is to inspire in the rank and file a familial loyalty to “the regiment” so that it acquires the characteristics of an extended family.

But in the heat and terror of battle, when death is a bullet or bayonet’s width away, the strongest loyalties are not to the regiment, or the company but to those members of the smallest unit with whom the soldier shares the daily threat of injury and death.

Real loyalty is not to the abstract but to the flesh and blood of those immediately around you with whom the risk is shared, those who you protect and by whom you are protected.

These are the people who command the fiercest affection and whom, in extremis, you grow to love.

So, when people speak of loving a country, to what or whom is that emotive word being applied? Is it appropriate use of the word ‘love’? It is much abused both as a transitive verb and as a noun.

How often do you hear someone say that they love the Yorkshire moors or Ireland’s rivers or Nepal’s mountains? They are not equating that love with a willingness to die in order to preserve these glorious natural features.

What they want to do is convey a deep affinity with and affection for glorious geographical features.

In a wild gesture of generosity some will say that they love an entire ethnic group of human beings. By the same token, we hear people say that they hate an entire ethnic race. Both statements are equally irrational.

On a personal level, whereas I have dual nationality, the country and people with whom I probably have the strongest feeling of affinity is neither of my nationalities.

All three countries regularly change their governments, some of which I loathe, and others I respect when they honestly endeavor to better the lot of their respective populations.

But my opinion about the ruling government of any of these countries at any point in time has nothing whatsoever to do with my affection for or affinity with the politico-geographical entities and the populations within their borders.

The idea that love of a country’s government should be mandatory has an uncanny echo of imperial dynasties when individual monarchs demanded total, unquestioning devotion to the person on the throne, anything less being lèse majesté and subject to being hanged drawn and quartered.

Patriotism or, as I suggest, matriotism, should be defined by the closest of human relationships, be they blood line or born of bonded comradeship. Use of the words outside these contexts only leads to confusion and error.

As an Englishman, just don’t expect me to love Boris Johnson’s government of third rate misfits and their Little Britain ideology.

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Queen's Counsel