The above Latin quote, which translates to “it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country,” unexpectedly jumped to mind as I finished watching Lumumba. The French film at first glance has little to do with such a phrase. Based on the brief tenure of the first Congolese prime minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, the film depicts the passionate nationalist leader’s rise and sudden overthrow by a collusion of imperial, sectarian, and business forces that wished to control the newly independent Congo for their own benefit. Whether such a narrative is completely truthful or not, the movie shows a defiant Lumumba fighting until the end for his country’s sovereignty; indeed, before his death he declares that even should he fall, one day the “children of Congo will restore her dignity,” a principle he equates with national self-autonomy.
As someone who grew up in a southern Air Force town, from a young age I have conceived of patriotism wholly in military terms, whether positive or negative. That is, most people I know express their love of country by either fervently supporting the military or by vehemently advocating pacifism. From this vantage, a phrase such as dulce et decorum est appears to only have two possible meanings: (1) the earnest belief that to sacrifice oneself in military service is an unmitigated good, like the Roman poet Horace thought, or (2) to be used ironically to critique the practice of war, as poet Wilfred Owen did during World War I. In either case, the idea of sacrificing oneself for one’s country is only conceptualized as occurring in an explicitly military context.
In every case Lumumba, for all his faults, stands firm the face of adversity and spurns every opportunity to renounce his people’s dignity—even at the cost of his life.
However, I believe that the film Lumumba offers a third way of thinking about sacrifice. In his fight for his country’s dignity, Lumumba utilizes the weapon of words, not bullets. Like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, Lumumba categorically rejected all settlements that would compromise his people’s dignity—Congolese self-rule. He stands up for this belief in his people’s value in both collective and individual terms: he will not allow the abusive Belgian troops on Congo’s soil, nor will he abandon his family so that he can go free. In every case Lumumba, for all his faults, stands firm in the face of adversity and spurns every opportunity to renounce his people’s dignity—even if it costs him his life.
In this film Lumumba creates a third meaning for the Latin phrase. It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country—by relentlessly advocating for the dignity and rights of one’s people. Lumumba’s sacrifice charts a new vision for what it means to give one’s life for one’s country: he was martyred not as a soldier or as a passive protestor, but as an advocate for dignity. In both life and death he strove to promote the rights of others, and in the end his story confronts us with a single question: are you willing to do the same? Dulce et Decorum est, pro patria mori.
Randall Fowler is an Intern for theWYA Headquarters.
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