What makes a country great?

I had a chance to stop in Salima and Senga Bay over the weekend, to see a friend of mine from the Malawian Army who is headed to Ivory Coast to join a peacekeeping force there. While there I got to thinking about national greatness. One thing many Americans point to when asked what makes America a great country is its natural beauty. But Senga Bay is just one example of the stiff competition Malawi puts up in that department:

I’m not writing this just to show off the sweet pictures I took of the beautiful place I stayed (okay, it’s partly about that). I also want to make the point that my friend the peacekeeper exemplifies how Malawi’s greatness is exactly the opposite of America’s. Beyond our amber waves of grain, Americans are raised to be proud of their country’s martial tradition. When I was a kid I learned we had never lost a single war out of the many we had fought, and that we had single-handedly defeated Hitler and Imperial Japan. It was only much later that I learned about Vietnam and the war of 1812 (most American still insist that we won the latter, which was a sideshow to the Napoleonic wars in which the British razed our capital), and also about the crucial role played by Stalin’s Russia in stopping the Nazis.

The accuracy of the narrative aside, a history of aggression and warfare is a very primitive thing to rest one’s national pride on. And we certainly do – despite our country being founded by a set of brilliant intellectuals, we mainly remember the one who led our army, and focus on his military accomplishments rather than his political acumen. Malawi’s military history is a stark contrast to our own. To the best of my knowledge, the army’s only non-peacekeeping engagement was an intervention in Mozambique’s civil war in the 1980s. Zero wars in fifty years of existence is an impressive track record.

Instead, their army has been engaged in keeping the peace in other countries. Sometimes war is necessary, but peace, peace is worth being proud of.

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