I have a lot of things on my mind these days, but they must take a back seat today. It’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day in the good ol’ U.S. of A. It is therefore more than appropriate to take a break from all the other stuff, and take a few moments to reflect on being an American (my apologies to my friends in the other “Americas;” it’s just too awkward to call ourselves United Statesians).
I remember learning to sing all of the patriotic songs in grammar school: “America the Beautiful,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “God Bless America,” “Grand Old Flag,” etc. Being the son of a historian, I was raised on tales of the patriots (or whatever the 18th Century term for “terrorists” was, as they were probably known as in England) who founded our country on the principles of individual liberty.
As I grew older, however, the Vietnam conflict made patriotism a problematic concept. It became difficult to separate our feelings about our nation from the way we felt about an undeclared war that left so many of our countrymen dead for an end we really couldn’t understand. Our feelings about the nation and its course were reflected in slogans: “Make Love, Not War” versus “America: Love It or Leave It.”
The slogan that stayed with me through the years, at least in the sense that it provoked thought on my part, was “My Country, Right or Wrong.” It acknowledges that the governance of the United States is a human enterprise, subject to human error and human vices. Issues will divide us, and sometimes our government may lose sight of the core principles on which the nation was founded, but we remain Americans.
We learned a lot from one another in the disagreements over the Vietnam war. Those who supported the policies that had us fighting in Southeast Asia learned that protesting was not necessarily “un-American.” Those who thought the war to be a tragic mistake learned that they could not place the blame on the men and women whose job it was to carry out the country’s stated policy. Those lessons didn’t come easy, and it took years before we could look back and understand those to be truths, but we did learn through a lot of reflection.
To be sure there is still demagoguery among our politicians about the current military operations in Iraq, but the spirit of the people rises to the level where, no matter how we feel about the policies that have our men and women in harm’s way, we honor those who honor the entire country by their service and sacrifice.
I thought about the question of honor a few days ago while reading an essay in the July 3rd edition of Time. The essay by retired Maj. General Robert Scales, argues that it is wrong to debate a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning at a time that so many flag-draped coffins are coming home. General Scales does not address the wisdom ⎯ or lack thereof ⎯ of the Iraq operations. As a career military man, he is more concerned with how the policy is carried out and our military supported, and he wants to ensure that the men and women who serve are honored by our elected officials. The flag is not the property of our politicians, nor is it intended for those politicians to wrap themselves in. It belongs to the people, and particularly to those who sacrificed for the people.
That’s a tall order. Asking politicians of any party to keep their eyes on what really matters is often a forlorn enterprise. If our elected officials were able to look at the big picture, our foreign policy would probably not have our military involved in all of the operations they must carry out today. But we did not last 230 years, surviving all manner of fools in the White House and the halls of Congress, because of the wisdom of our leaders. No, we have not lasted through the wisdom of our leaders but rather through the wisdom of the people.
Now that’s worth celebrating. Have a safe and happy Independence Day.