When I was born, it had been just 180 years since the Liberty Bell announced the birth of my country. It had been less than 100 years since the end of our Civil War, just over a decade since the end of WWII, and only a few years since the end of the Korean War. There were still only 48 stars on our flag. When I was a boy, all the men in my life and some women of a certain age were veterans--or survivors--of some war. The same was true of most of my friends' older relatives. When I was young, the 4th of July was always, always, an astonishing and wonderful day! Flags were everywhere, and there were parades, picnics at the park, and war stories told by bunches of men standing in circles with a beer or a drink in their hands, and swimming and games; all topped off by the most spectacular fireworks displays.
A lot has happened here since then, and for a long time people had stopped celebrating as hard, and the country felt divided and a little frail. There were still picnics and fireworks, but it wasn't the same. The spirit was missing--or perhaps just damaged. Independence Day had become somewhat bittersweet and just a bit melancholy. Far fewer flags were flown in neighborhoods where I lived.
Things change. In recent years, the people of my country have remembered--been reminded in ways both terrible and sublime--that we have reasons, good reasons, to be proud of what this country has accomplished in the past two-plus centuries. Fourth of July celebrations have been improving, I see a few more flags flown on holidays than in past years, and more fireworks displays in more places, and it seems there are more energetic, joyous celebrations. Of course there are again men, and now women too, gathered in circles telling war stories, though they all seem a great deal younger than they used to be. And of course, there are a few children huddled quietly to the side, or standing next to one of the grownups, holding a hand or hanging on to a leg. Listening wide-eyed and hearing amazing things!
What I wouldn't give to be 10 years old again, and to know as little as I did then. Just for one more long-ago Fourth of July, when the stirrings of patriotisim in my soul were still fresh and exciting and mysterious . . .
What is Patriotism to Me?
Patriotism is not unquestioning loyalty, nor blind obedience, nor hyperbole, or rhetoric, or waving flags. Patriotism is integrity. It is accepting personal responsibility for your country, and for the things that happen there and in its name around the world, even when that means taking a stance in opposition to a contrary popular view. It is knowing, deep inside, that no matter what any other person believes, your country is worth your respect and your care, and it is saying so, even when no one else is.
Patriotism is also honor. It is acknowledging with gratitude the people who came before you who worked to make your country and your life what it is. It is trying to live up to the standard they set, and doing your best to be worthy of their respect, because even though they may have had flaws, as a citizenry they were glorious. And of course, patriotism is being honorable, doing what is right for the generations of Americans to come, so they will have a reason to honor you.
Patriotism is commitment, too, commitment to the common set of principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Commitment means you stand by your country in good times and in bad, that you keep the promises you make every time you say the Pledge of Allegiance, and that you subordinate your welfare to the greater good when necessary. It also means you can count on and be counted on by others; patriotism is your bond to your people, and people are the only reason patriotism has any meaning. Patriotism that is not built on a foundation of genuine commitment to your fellow citizens is nothing more than hollow and meaningless self-delusion.
Above all, patriotism is an affair of the heart; a shared emotional attachment to ideals, and being part of something that is bigger than you in both time and space. It is caring deeply for the principles, peoples, and places that make up the country you call your home, and being ever ready, and very proud, to say so.
HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!
Minor editorial changes were made to this essay on 24 Jan 14
[ All of the images on this page were created by and belong to me. The tattoo was at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, on July 4th 1976; the soldiers were CSC, 1/35 Infantry, 25th ID; CSM Snead.