Posts Tagged ‘Patriotism’

Who are willing to fight for their countries?

February 24, 2017
The darker the red, the greater the willingness to die for one's country

The darker the red, the greater the willingness to fight.

Only 44 percent of adult Americans are willing to tell pollsters they’d fight for their country.

The percentage is even less for some U.S. allies, such as Canada (30%), France (29%), the United Kingdom (27%), Italy (30%), Germany (18%) and Japan (11%).

In contrast, 71 percent of Chinese and 59 percent of Russians say they’d fight for their countries.

This is the result of a public opinion poll of more than 1,000 people in each of 64 countries in late 2014 by WIN / Gallup International.   The complete results are below.

I’m not sure what to make of this.  I think it partly depends on people mean by “fight for country”.

I think almost all Americans would be willing to fight to defend our nation from an invader.  I think only a minority are willing to go to some foreign country to fight to increase U.S. geopolitical power.

The problem for us Americans is that someday U.S. power will begin to slip, and countries that now fear to go against the United States will become our enemies.

When that backlash comes, our nation will need the patriotism that our leaders now exploit and abuse.

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The toast of Stephen Decatur

November 11, 2016

Our country, in her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong.
    ==The toast of Stephen Decatur (authentic version)

Our country, may she always be in the right!
But right or wrong, our country!
    ==The toast of Stephen Decatur (commonly quoted version)

My country, right or wrong!
If right, to be kept right.
If wrong, to be set right
`    ==Carl Schurz

“My country, right or wrong” is a thing no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case.  It is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.”
    ==G.K. Chesterton

Stephen Decatur

Stephen Decatur

Until I looked it up, I thought the toast of Stephen Decatur was, “Our country, may it always be in the right, but right or wrong—our country!”

I could raise a glass to that toast.   My country, right or wrong, is still my country.  This doesn’t mean I have to go along when my country is in the wrong.  It does mean that whatever America’s crimes and follies, I am part of it, and it is part of me.

But “always successful” in war and diplomacy?  That is impossible, either for an individual or a nation, and, furthermore, some kinds of success are not good, either for a nation or for an individual.

Love of country should be like love of family.  Too many people think love of country is like love of God.

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A Muslim veteran against Islamophobia

November 11, 2016

Nate Terani is a Muslim, the grandson of Iranian immigrants and a U.S. Navy veteran.  He also is a member of a new organization called Veterans Challenge Islamophobia.

He grew up in central New Jersey, but, in 1985, the eight-year-old Terani was taken on a visit with his family to his ancestral homeland.  While there, he was enrolled in a special bilingual school for children who had grown up in Western countries.

One day soldiers, in green and black uniforms, broke into the classroom, dragged the children into a courtyard and ordered them to watch the flags of their home countries being set on fire.

Nate Terani in his Navy days

Nate Terani in his Navy days

The children were ordered at gunpoint to trample on the burning flags and shout, “Death to America.”

Instead Terani snatched a burning American flag off the ground and darted through the legs of the watching crowd before the soldiers could catch him.

His experience reinforced his love of country and gave him a new understanding of the evil of religious hatred.

In 1996, at age 19, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.   He must have been an outstanding recruit.  He reported that he was the first Muslim-American member of the Navy Presidential Honor Guard.

In 1998, he became special assistant to the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, and, in 1999, he was recruited to serve in the Defense Intelligence Agency.   He transferred to the Navy Reserve in 2000 and completed his military service in 2006.

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Nations of immigrants and the future

May 17, 2016

migrantsinternationalcomparionsimage_thumb69

Hat tip to Jim Rose.

I’ve always thought of the United States as a nation particularly welcoming to immigrants, but the chart shows many other nations have proportionately larger immigrant populations than the USA.

I’m less surprised at the high ranking of Australia, New Zealand and Canada as at nations such as Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and Ireland, which I’ve always thought of as ethnically and culturally homogeneous.

I’d be interested in the figures for Argentina, Brazil and other Latin American countries.

[Update 2016/5/19.  I came across an interesting interactive graphic, Origins and Destinations of the World’s Migrants, 1990-2015, from Pew Research Center that answers my question.  Also, I forgot about peoplemovin- A visualization of migrant flows, an interactive graphic to which I linked previously.]

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My country, right and wrong

July 4, 2015

Rod Dreher, a Louisianan who writes for The American Conservative, objects to fellow white Southerners who deny the reality of the South’s history of slavery, lynching and white supremacy.

He objects even more to self-righteous white Northerners who condemn everything about the South as if the North had nothing to answer for.

Taking the good and the bad together, he is part of the South and the South is part of him.

I completely understand what he is saying because that is the same as my attitude toward the United States as a whole.

AmericanflagWhenever the Star-Spangled Banner is played, I stand at attention and put my hand over my heart, even when I am the only person who does so.

At the same time I can understand why, for many people, the Stars and Stripes is as much a symbol of oppression as the Confederate Stars and Bars.

I think of people in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Latin American countries that have been ruled by U.S.-backed dictatorships.  I think of how U.S. intervention has spread death and destruction spread through the Greater Middle East during the past 15 years.

      I remember the U.S. Constitution was ratified based on a compromise with slavery, and the USA acquired its present territory through ethnic cleansing of the native people and a war of aggression against Mexico.

That’s not the whole story, of course.   American history is also the story of black and white Americans who fought slavery and Jim Crow.  It is the story of the first important modern nation to be founded on democratic ideals, which we have sometimes lived up to and never completely forgotten.

It is the story of a nation to which the whole world looked as a land of opportunity, and which was the first important modern nation to achieve mass prosperity for ordinary people.

The French writer Ernst Renan said a nation is a group of people who have agreed to remember certain things and to forget certain things.  I don’t accept this.  I believe it is possible to be patriotic without historical amnesia.

I identify with the comment of another French writer, Albert Camus, at the time when the French army was fighting Algerian rebels by means of torture and atrocity.  He said he wanted to be able to love his country and also love justice.

That should be less of a dilemma for Americans.  The United States is a nation whose patriotism is based not on loyalty to an ethnic group, but on the willingness to uphold, protect and defend a Constitution.

We Americans can love our country without having to love our government.

But my love of country is not based these arguments or any other arguments, any more than my love of family is based on arguments.   I love America because I am part of it and it is part of me.

∞∞∞

Loving the South by Ross Douthat for The American Conservative.

Theodore Roosevelt on patriotism

February 8, 2015

Teddy-Roosevelt-Patriotism-quote-inspirational

Veterans Day and the Great War

November 11, 2014

Veterans Day, which is called Remembrance Day in Canada and other Commonwealth nations, was originally called Armistice Day.  It honored the Allied troops who died in what then was called the Great War or the World War on the anniversary of the official end of hostilities during the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The following is from the Notes to Ponder web log.

When the first war called, Charlie Perkins and 4 close friends left the serenity of Fraser Valley farmland. Charlie, a flight instructor with the Royal Flying Corps was the only survivor.

Charlie's TreeOn his return in 1919, he honored fallen comrades by planting ivy at the base of a massive Douglas Fir, a tree close to the swimming hole they frequented – a simple act of remembrance.

The following year fire ravaged the 210 foot behemoth Fir – the Perkins family managed to save some of the tree.

Ivy unscathed and flourishing, Charlie’s tree rested quietly until 1960 heralded the Trans-Canada Highway.

Horrified the tree he tended for 40 years was about to fall beneath asphalt, Perkins appeared before highways Minister Phil Gaglardi.

Perkins efforts go down in Canadian history as the only time a major highway was diverted to protect a tree.

Traveling east on Highway 1 between 176 & 200th St. – the Trans-Canada takes a noticeable bend at Charlie’s memorial.

via Charlie’s Tree | notestoponder.

Most historians now think that the First World War was a terrible mistake, in which all combatant nations were losers to greater or lesser degrees, and from which all nations that had a choice would have done better to stay out.

The First World War was supposed to be the war that ended war.  It was supposed to be the war that made the world safe for democracy.  But it gave rise to Bolshevism, fascism and an economic crisis that led to the Great Depression, and set the stage for the even more bloody Second World War.  It was one of history’s greatest tragedies.

Yet the patriotism and sacrifice of the troops who fought is worthy of honor.  They did not send themselves.  They were serving their countries and their fellow citizens as best they knew.

I think most wars are tragic mistakes and many of them are crimes.  Yet if my own country, the USA, did not have citizens who were willing to fight for it at different periods of history, the United States would not be an independent nation, it would have been broken up in order to preserve slavery, the Axis powers would have dominated the world and (maybe) the Soviets would have done so, too.

Germany’s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck said there was one criterion for deciding whether a war was just.  Could the leader who decided to fight the war tell the wife, mother or sister of the soldier who was killed what the soldier’s death accomplished?

I think the best way to honor the troops is to refrain from using their patriotism and sense of duty in a cause that isn’t worthy of it.  And to not abandon them when war is over.

My country, both right and wrong

July 5, 2014

blog_flags_0

The American naval hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur, like to offer the following after-dinner toast in the late 1810s.

Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!

The immigrant newspaper publisher, Carl Schurz, founder of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, offered this toast in 1872.

My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.

The worst mistake an individual, or a community, can make about themselves is to think they are always right and never wrong.   The second worst mistake an individual, or community, can make is to think they are always wrong and never right.

I love my country, I love my family and I love myself, but I don’t make the mistake of thinking my country, my family or myself are perfect.

The great danger of teaching children that the USA (or any other country) is always in the right, and never in the wrong, is that, when they find out this is not so, they go to the opposite extreme and reject everything about their heritage.

I love my country not because it is perfect, but because it is my country.

The United States is an exceptional[1] nation because our basis of unity consists of a set of ideals, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and a set of laws, as laid down in our Constitution.   The Constitution is the more important of the two.  The oaths of loyalty sworn by new citizens, the military and the President are to the Constitution.

But the Constitution and the Declaration did not come out of nowhere.  They are part of the heritage of British liberty under law, which is part of the heritage of Western civilization, which is part of the heritage of the whole human race, which is part of the cosmic scheme of things.

I don’t recall who it was that asked, if you don’t love your country, which you have seen, how you can love humanity, which you have not seen?  That’s how I think of patriotism.

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Readings for Independence Day 2013

July 4, 2013

StatueOfLiberty_Fireworks_MI-resize-380x300

Some readings for American patriots.

Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies by Edmund Burke (1775)

In Congress, July 4, 1776: THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls (1848)

Speech on The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro by Frederick Douglass (1852)

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness by Andrew Sullivan

Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality? by Robert J. Samuelson

The Omega Glory by Maggie McNeill

Remembering the Harvesters on this Fourth of July by Gracy Howard in The American Conservative.

How Unreasonable Searches of Private Documents Caused the American Revolution by Juan Cole on Informed Comment.

A Persuasive Argument by Bert Likko for The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

American exceptionalism

July 4, 2013

A writer named Alan R. Sanderson pointed out recently that the United States is still No. 1, at least in some things.

As our nation adds another candle on its cake […], let’s take stock of where we stand in the world after a couple centuries of trying.  Yes, we are about the only country with pick-up trucks and a preference for ice in drinks; we have an immense prison population and large carbon dioxide emissions, and, for a developed economy we have a troubling amount of income inequality.  We are a portly people, though the rest of the world is—pun intended—gaining on us; and we spend (waste?) far more time on Facebook than citizens in any other country. […]

No-1-USA-patch-197x300We have the largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world, about triple our nearest rival—China (on an exchange-rate basis, though only 50 percent larger on a purchasing-power-parity standard).  On a per-capita measure there is even more distance between us and Beijing, though not in comparison with several Scandinavian countries.

We have the highest spending—as a percentage of GDP—on health care of any nation, though that may be understandable—we’re rich!  And while we are not #1 in life expectancy, once one adjusts for the heterogeneity of our population, income inequality, infant-mortality, obesity, a high murder rate and automobile fatalities, we look more respectable.

With just 4.5 percent of the earth’s population, the U.S. produces 20-25 percent of all output, has a per-capita income 4-5 times the world average, and holds a third of the world’s wealth. […]

In terms of industrial and manufacturing output, the United States, China, Japan and Germany are the top four world economies.  We lead everyone by a wide margin in the production and export of services.  Three of the four largest non-bank businesses (by market capitalization) in the world are U.S. firms, and they reflect our diversity: Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, and Walmart. By the same metric we have four of the largest ten banks in the world, and the largest stock market. […]

flag-fireworksChina, India and the United States have the largest agricultural outputs, though it is only one percent of our GDP and less than two percent of our labor force.  (We lead the world by far when it comes to the consumption of coffee and cocoa!)  China, Germany and the United States are the three largest when it comes to the dollar volume of international trade, though in spite of all the political rhetoric and grousing about goods made abroad, relative to GDP the U.S. has one of the smallest foreign-trade sectors among developed nations.  In dollar terms, we have the world’s largest trade deficit, though it is less than 4 percent of our GDP.  (For Goldfinger fans: we have by far the world’s largest gold reserves.)

When it comes to flying, no other nation is close to us in logging air miles, and two of the three largest airports in the world, measured by passengers served, are in the U.S.—Atlanta and O’Hare.  France, Indonesia and the United States are the three top tourist destinations, though in terms of visitors’ spending, the U.S. comes out on top.  The most popular museums? In the U.S., France, and U.K.

Most of the world’s top universities are in the United States and, not surprisingly, in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics, 41 percent of all Nobel prizes have been awarded to Americans or scholars working here, and we lead the world in R & D expenditures.

via Chicago Life.

I’m grateful for my good fortune in being the citizen of a rich and powerful nation, but my greater gratitude is for being an heir to the United States’ tradition of freedom and democracy.

When President Abraham Lincoln referred to the United States as the last, best hope of earth, the United States was not No. 1 in gross domestic product and did not have full spectrum military dominance.  What Lincoln could justly claim is that the United States was a country in which ordinary working people had a voice in their government, and could better their condition through their own efforts.

A high national GDP is good and strong military power is good, but what matters is what they contribute to the well-being and liberties of the citizens of the nation.

Click on Celebrate the 4th of July for Sanderson’s complete article.

Click on Rethinking American Exceptionalism for David R. Sirota’s thoughts in In These Times.

Click on American Exceptionalisms for Richard J. Gamble’s contrast in The American Conservative of the older American exceptionalism and the new.

Memorial Day music: Last Post, Taps, Il Silenzio

May 27, 2013

Melissa Venema was 13 years old when she performed this trumpet solo in 2008 at Maastricht, the Netherlands, in 2008.  It sounds to my ear like Taps, a bugle call I heard every evening in 1957 at Fort Eustis, Va., when the flag was lowered at sundown.  Taps is a shorter version of Last Post, which is traditionally played at military funerals through the English-speaking world.

I wondered if the performance had any connection with the annual Memorial Day ceremony held by Dutch people at the American Military Cemetery in the Netherlands at Margarten, just six miles east of Maastricht.  This cemetery holds Americans who died fighting in World War Two to drive the German armies from the Netherlands.  It originally contained about 18,000 graves, but some American remains were shipped home, and the cemetery now has 8,301 plots.

Each dead American has been adopted by a Dutch family, who try to obtain photos and learn all they can about this particular person’s life, and who pay their respects at the graveside every year.   I was touched to learn this.   However, as it happens, Melissa Venema’s trumpet solo has nothing to do this this.  She was playing Il Silenzio, which is, I am told by Wikipedia, an Italian pop music selection composed by trumpeter Nini Rosso, based in an Italian cavalry bugle call.

No matter.  She played beautifully, and we can think our own thoughts as we listen.   We can remember the brave American soldiers, and also the brave Dutch Resistance fighters, who gave their lives to keep their countries free.

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Veterans Day 2012

November 11, 2012

courage

While I think the United States government is overly quick to use war as an instrument of foreign policy, I feel respect and gratitude for men and women in uniform for their willingness to risk and sacrifice to serve the country.  We the American people owe it to our veterans that they not be forgotten when they come home, and to the troops on active service that their patriotism not be wasted.

Robert A. Heinlein on patriotism

November 11, 2011

The following is a shortened version of “The Pragmatics of Patriotism,” a lecture given by the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein to midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy on April 5, 1973.  The complete lecture is given in Expanded Universe, an anthology of Heinlein’s works edited by Heinlein himself as an overview of his career and thoughts.

Heinlein himself graduated from the Naval Academy in 1929, but he was discharged from the Navy in 1934 for medical reasons; he had pulmonary tuberculosis.  After unsuccessful ventures in real estate sales and silver mining, he sold his first science fiction story in 1939, and soon became one of the most popular and influential science fiction writers.  During World War Two, he worked in research and development at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Robert A. Heinlein

… … Why are you here? … You are here to become a naval officer. That’s why this Academy was founded. That is why all of you are here: to become naval officers. If that is NOT why YOU are here, you’ve made a bad mistake. But I speak to the overwhelming majority who understood the oath they took on becoming midshipmen and look forward to the day when they will renew that oath as commissioned officers.

But why would anyone want to become a naval officer?

In the present dismal state of our culture there is little prestige attached to serving your country; recent public opinion polls place military service far down the list.  … … Why would anyone elect a career which is unappreciated, overworked, and underpaid? It can’t be just to wear a pretty uniform. There has to be a better reason. … …

As one drives through the bushveldt of East Africa, it is easy to spot herds of baboons grazing upon the ground.  But not by looking at the ground.  Instead you look up and spot the lookout, an adult male posted on the limb of a tree where he has a clear view of all around him – which is why you can spot him; he has to be where he can see a leopard in time to give the alarm.  On the ground, a leopard can catch a baboon – but if a baboon is warned in time to reach the trees, he can out-climb a leopard.

The lookout is a young man assigned to that duty and there he will stay, until the bull of the herd sends another male to relive him. … …

Patriotism is the most practical of all human characteristics.

But in the present decadent atmosphere patriots are often too shy to talk about it − as if it were something shameful or an irrational weakness.

But patriotism is NOT sentimental nonsense. Nor something dreamed up by demagogues. Patriotism is as necessary a part of man’s evolutionary equipment as are his eyes, as useful to the race as eyes are to the individual.

A man who is NOT patriotic is an evolutionary dead end. This is not sentiment but the hardest of logic.

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Is the United States a Christian nation?

July 7, 2011

What is the definition of “Christian nation?”

The United States is a Christian nation in the sense that a majority of Americans are Christians, in the sense that United States is a country in which the Christian religion flourishes, in the sense that the United States is part of Western civilization, which is rooted in Christianity, the Bible and the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.

But the United States is not a Christian nation in the sense that Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan are Muslim nations, Israel is a Jewish nation and the Dalai Lama’s Tibet was a Buddhist nation.  There is no religious test for American citizenship.

Declaration and Constitution don't mention Jesus

On this question, as in other things, we can look to our differing but complementary founding documents for guidance – the Declaration of Independence, a religious document, and the Constitution, a secular document.

The Declaration speaks of “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle them, the inalienable rights with which people are endowed “by their Creator,” with inalienable rights, and “a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence.”

This is a religious statement— an ecumenical religious statement.  There is nothing in the Declaration to which any Christian would object, but the Declaration also is compatible with Judaism, Islam and many other religions, including “deism” – belief in God unconnected from any organized religious body.

The Constitution, on the other hand, does not mention God at all.  It only speaks of religion – that there shall be no religious test for public office, and that Congress shall pass no law regarding the establishment of religion nor limiting the free exercise of religion.

What I take these two documents together to mean is this.  It is assumed that everybody believes in God in some way, shape or form.  But this is not considered any of the government’s business.  Neither the Declaration nor the Constitution provide any justification for forcing religion on anyone, nor relegating anybody to second-class citizenship based on their religious belief or lack of belief.

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The meaning of Memorial Day

May 30, 2011

Memorial Day is the most meaningful of our national holidays.  Maybe it is the only one that has any meaning.  The Fourth of July is no longer an occasion for listening to patriotic speeches on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence; we watch fireworks displays, but don’t necessarily remember what the displays are for.  Thanksgiving is a time for feasting and maybe for expressing gratitude for our blessings, but nobody except maybe school children remember the Pilgrims and their quest for religious freedom.  Presidents Day, combining Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, is an insult to both of our national heroes.  The only national hero to whom we pay any respect at all is Martin Luther King Jr.

But it is well that we celebrate Memorial Day, originally created to honor the Union dead in the Civil War and now to honor all who have fallen in our nation’s wars.  The men (and now women) in the uniformed services pledge to put their very lives at the service of their community.  As somebody once pointed out to me, the armed services are the only institution in which you can be ordered to do something that is almost certain to get you killed, and it is a felony to refuse to obey that order.

Even if you think a particular war is a mistake, even if you think most wars are a mistake, even if you think all wars are wrong, you have to respect that patriotism and dedication.  Soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and other troops serve at the orders of the President and Congress, who are accountable to we, the people.  The troops do not send themselves into battle.  If a war is wrong, the responsibility rests not with the troops, but with we, the people.

The American military has another virtue, and that is deference to civilian authority.  They’re not in the habit of staging military coups.  The military in many other countries, including our Latin American neighbors, regard themselves as the repository of national patriotism, with the right to take over when the civilian authority is on the wrong path.

Our American exceptionalism reflects the greatness of the first commander-in-chief, George Washington.  He always followed the orders of the Continental Congress, no matter how much he disagreed.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, he was so popular he could easily have made himself king or dictator.  Some people proposed that he do so, and, given the serious disarray of the newly-independent states, there were strong arguments in favor.  The liberators of many Latin American nations did just that.  But Washington disbanded the army and went home to Mount Vernon, to await the call of a legal civilian government.   That has been the tradition of our military ever since.

The oath that the members of our armed forces swear is not personal loyalty to a dictator or king or the armed forces themselves, but to the Constitution of the United States, which they swear to support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  Over the generations, they have kept that oath.  It is their willingness to sacrifice their lives which won independence for the United States as a nation, preserved the Union from being broken up and kept the nation free from foreign monarchs and dictators.  We the people can show our gratitude by honoring the memory of the dead, attending to the needs of living veterans and each, in our own way, supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States.

Memorial Day: a chain e-mail

May 30, 2011

A dear friend sent me this e-mail chain letter a few days ago, and I’ve received other versions of it over the years.  I agree whole-heartedly with the feelings behind it, especially “God bless them all!”  But there is one word I would quibble with.

It is the
VETERAN,
not the preacher,
who has given us freedom of religion.

It is
the VETERAN,
not the reporter,
who has given us freedom of the press.

It is
the VETERAN,
not the poet,
who has given us freedom of speech.

It is
the VETERAN,
not the campus organizer,
who has given us freedom to assemble.

It is
the VETERAN,
not the lawyer,
who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is
the VETERAN,
not the politician,
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the
VETERAN who
salutes the Flag,

It is
the
VETERAN
who serves
under the Flag,

ETERNAL REST GRANT THEM O LORD, AND LET PERPETUAL LIGHT SHINE UPON
THEM.

We can be very proud of our young men and women in the service no matter where they serve.

God Bless them all!!!

Makes you proud to be an AMERICAN!!!!!

The word I quibble with is “not.”  If I were circulating that e-mail, I would change “not” to “as much as.”   We honor the men (and now women) in uniform who have given their lives to defend the United States against foreign monarchs and dictators.  But, with all respect, it is we, the American citizens as a whole, who have kept the United States a free nation.  What our fallen troops have done is to make it possible to have an independent nation in which to establish freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, the right to vote, the right to free trial and the right to vote.

If I were writing an e-mail chain letter for Memorial Day, here is how I would phrase it:

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Independence Day

July 4, 2010

The history of the United States of America is not the history of an ethnic group, or the history of people of any one race or religion.  It is the story of the drafting and signing of two documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutions, the events that led up to it and the consequences that flowed from it.

The Declaration of Independence was, and still is, a radical document.  It affirms there is such a thing as a right of revolution.  It asserts that the only legitimate government is self-government.  It asserts that no government is legitimate if it denies basic human rights.  Very often Americans on the street, when confronted with the words of the Declaration without being told their source, refuse to sign it.

The Constitution was, and still is, a conservative document.  It sets limits on the will of the people.  It creates checks and balances.  It provides a basis for governmental authority.

The Fourth of July, commemorating the signing of the Declaration, is our great national holiday.  But loyalty to the Constitution is the basis of American loyalty.  The President of the United States and all other federal officers, down to the newest inductee into the armed forces, swear to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and so do immigrants when being naturalized as American citizens.

My friend David White some years back started a nice custom of holding a Fourth of July picnic in his back yard, in which we recited the Declaration.  Later we added related documents, such as the Declaration of Sentiments by the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls on July 4, 1848, and selections from Frederick Douglass’ oration, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” in Rochester in 1852.

There were a couple of years in which David didn’t give his party.  The first time I felt disappointed, and then I reflected there was nothing to stop me from reciting the Declaration of Independence on my own.  So I did, alone in my house.  I also read the Constitution.

For us, as for Americans in 1848 and 1852, the Declaration and the Constitution are still the benchmarks by which we judge our government and ourselves as a people.  It’s good to stop and remind myself of what’s in them.

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Washington’s Birthday

February 22, 2010

Today is the former holiday once known as Washington’s Birthday.  We Americans stopped taking note of it long before it was combined with Lincoln’s Birthday into the meaningless President’s Day.

When I was a boy, Abraham Lincoln was a living figure to me, but not George Washington.  Life in small-town Williamsport, Md., in the 1940s, even though we had radios and automobiles, was close enough to Lincoln’s that I could identify with him; today my life back then is almost as distant as Lincoln’s to the Twitter and Facebook generation.  I could identify with Lincoln’s warm humanity, but not Washington’s distant coldness.  Washington seemed more like an English country gentleman somehow transplanted to Virginia and enrolled in the American cause.

It wasn’t until late in life that I came to appreciate Washington’s true greatness.  I owe this mainly to two books, Founding Father: George Washington by Richard Brookhiser, and His Excellency, George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis.

Washington was not cold and emotionless.  He was man of haughty pride, fiery temper and strong passions, held in check by iron will and self-discipline.  He was a capable general and a capable President, but his true greatness lay in his character.  He staked everything, including his life, on the Revolutionary cause.  He held the Continental Army together in the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, including the winter at Valley Forge when the army lacked shelter, decent shoes, warm clothing and decent food.  In spite of all his frustrations with a sometimes incompetent and corrupt Congress, he never challenged civilian authority.

His greatest moment came at the end of the Revolutionary War, when the victorious former colonies seemed ready to disintegrate into chaos.  He could have made himself dictator, as so many other revolutionary leaders in the same situation have done, but he chose to return to Mount Vernon.  As President, he led a nation that was much more divided than it is now. He held it together by means of his prestige which he maintained through strict impartiality.

Washington was not a perfect person.  He was a slaveowner.  But he, along with Abraham Lincoln, are among the few people in American history of whom the more I learn about them, the more I respect them.  I become extremely irritated at TV advertisements for President’s Day sales, in which Washington and Lincoln are made figures of ridicule.  It is not so much that I object to joking about great individuals as that the cartoonish jokes are all there is.

Many of our patriotic holidays have lost their meaning.  On the Fourth of July, few people think of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.  On Thanksgiving Day, many give thanks, but few think of the Mayflower Compact.  About the only meaningful patriotic holidays we have left are Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which school children and others do think about the meaning of Dr. King’s life, and Memorial Day, when we do pay tribute to those who gave their lives in the nation’s wars. That’s a reason for celebrating these two holidays all the more.