Wise as serpents?

Americans this week saw another of their embassies attacked and a U.S. flag burning in a foreign country (Serbia, this time). These are potent reports, instinctively generating righteous indignation and a desire to defend the honor of one’s country. But can that instinct sometimes be misplaced?

In the 1990s, NATO fought the first war in its history–not against an aggressive Soviet Union, as envisioned a half-century earlier at the alliance’s creation, but against tiny Serbia, then locked in the death throes of the devolution of Yugoslavia. American and allied aircraft pounded the Serbs until they agreed to stop fighting to hold onto Kosovo, a region of great significance to their people.

No question, the Balkan conflicts of that decade were ugly affairs, and no party to them had clean hands. Ethnic prejudice, abuse and attempted genocidal solutions were the order of the day. In such climates, it’s laudable to attempt mediation and reconciliation–but doing so at the point of precision-guided weaponry engenders problems all its own. Americans have forgotten the air war against Serbia. People in that part of the world, however, have very long memories.

Our willingness to ignorantly throw our weight around the world, recklessly trying to solve problems we don’t fully understand, has already bitten us more than once. One day, it will do so hard enough we learn to reserve force only for the day we ourselves are threatened. We’d do well to resurrect the spirit of the Gadsen flag, with all the symbolism it embodies:

In December 1775, “An American Guesser” anonymously wrote to the Pennsylvania Journal: “I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, ‘Don’t tread on me.’ …

This anonymous writer… speculated on why a snake might be chosen as a symbol for America. First, it occurred to him that “the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America.” The rattlesnake also has sharp eyes, and “may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.” Furthermore, “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. … she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.”

“I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, ’till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers. … “One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.”

As John Adams might have put it, the snake shrewdly doesn’t go looking to defend the well-being of every other animal. Its fangs are the guarantor solely of its own.

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