October 31, 2006

Patria sua cuique iucundissima

In English: To each person, his own fatherland is the most agreeable.

This is another proverb in the series of variations on "cuique suum," "to each his own," which I've been commenting on over the past several days. Today's proverb is about the patria, the homeland. The saying tells us that to each person, his own homeland is the one he takes the greatest pleasure in.

This is definitely a proverb worth remembering whenever you ponder the international news, and I was motivated to include it as today's proverb in particular because of a movie I watched last night: The Fog of War, a very thought-provoking documentary about Robert McNamara. Robert McNamara began his career in World War II (you can read a brilliant discussion of that in the recent book by James Carroll, House of War), and of course he is most famous (or infamous) for his role in the U.S. war against Vietnam. Anyway, in the film, McNamara describes a meeting which took place in 1995, an effort to bring together the important decision-makers on the U.S. and Vietnamese sides who could look back on the decisions they made during the war and try to find some lessons learned.

The encounter from the meeting which McNamara describes most vividly is with a Vietnamese official who had a passionate, even violent, argument with McNamara. He told McNamara that the Americans were completely wrong in all their most basic assumptions about the war - didn't we realize that the Vietnamese loved their country and would fight to the death? And that the Vietnamese would fight to the last man, in order to defend their country? Didn't we know that they loved their country? And that they would defend it not just from the Americans, but from the Chinese, too, a people the Vietnamese people had been fighting against for a thousand years, long long long before the U.S. became involved in Vietnam. He took McNamara, who was famous as an "egghead" intellectual after all, to task with a very damning question: "Didn't you ever read ANY history book about Vietnam?" If the Americans had known Vietnamese history, the man argued, they would have known they were starting a war that they could not win, unless they were prepared to kill every person in the country.

Now, you can argue a blue streak about whether the Vietnamese interpretation of the American war as imperialism, as an attempt to occupy and exploit Vietnam, was a fair interpretation of our intentions or not, just as there is a serious argument today about our intentions in Iraq - democracy-building or oil-grubbing. But what really struck me about this scene was the powerful effect the man's speech clearly had on McNamara. It seems quite clear that McNamara really had not fully explored the history of the Vietnamese people, and their country, and their love for their country, something that today's proverb urges us to always keep in mind.

After he left his job as Secretary of Defense, McNamara went on to work for the World Bank, and in that time he has clearly learned a great deal about the world and how it looks through other people's eyes, realizing that we should not let our own love of country blind us to the love of country felt by others. If you have not seen the film, I recommend it very highly. It's a great contribution to understanding the miracle of the human race having survived the late 20th century and the lessons we need to learn if we hope to survive the century to come.

So, please ponder the nations of the world - the many nations of the world! - as you listed to today's proverb read out loud:

933. Patria sua cuique iucundissima.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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