I think of myself as patriotic. I love apple pie, seldom gripe about taxes and couldn’t imagine living anyplace but America. Oh, and I’m a decorated veteran. In a box someplace I have three medals, although I never did anything remotely heroic to get them.
Maybe that helps explain my growing discomfort over what seems to be happening to the celebration of our foremost national holiday.
In too many ways, the Fourth of July, which fast approaches this week, has become no different from Memorial Day, Veterans Day and the force-feeding of “military appreciation” at nearly every U.S. sporting event. Apparently, we “honor America” every time our favorite ball team wears camouflage caps.
Well, yes, our country has a military, and we’re grateful for it. We really are. We have holidays devoted entirely to our armed forces, and that’s a good thing. But our country is about more than just that.
Maybe the best way to explain my point is to list some of the people I like to think about on the Fourth of July: Aaron Copeland, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Edward Hopper, E. B. White, Ernie Banks, Betty Friedan, Linus Pauling, Norman Borlaug, Alice Waters, Samuel Barber, Patsy Cline, Frederick Law Olmsted, Cesar Chavez, Arnold Palmer, Mark Twain, Jonas Salk, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rachel Carson, Johnny Carson.
You probably have your own list of favorite Americans. It might not include any of my names. Maybe that’s the best thing about our country; no one gets to dictate the content of our patriotism — at least not in theory.
But in reality, we’re constantly dragooned into defining our patriotism through a military lens. War is the sole subject of our national anthem. And our celebrations are dominated by admonitions to “support our troops,” “salute our veterans” and “honor our heroes.”
I know what some of you are thinking: that my list of favorite Americans and their accomplishments wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel without the devotion and spilled blood of (and here I quote the line we are constantly fed) “our brave men and women in uniform who risk their lives to protect our freedom.”
It’s a line that sends me straight up the wall. Why? Two reasons. When it’s pronounced at ball games, people stand, cheer and poke out their chests for our gallant stand-ins who are willing to do unpleasant things in faraway places that we don’t understand or care much about — things that most of us would never do. War, then, for most of us, becomes just another spectator sport; we cheer for our team from the sidelines so we can go on with our comfortable lives guilt-free.
As a former president advised during the last Iraq invasion: “Go shopping.” Is that the content of our patriotism?
My second objection to the line is that it’s not necessarily true. Yes, there have been times in our history when brave men and women in uniform have risked their lives — indeed, given their lives — to protect our freedom. But it’s a grim fact that our troops also have been sacrificed on foolish errands that had nothing to do with our national ideals. Blood shed on San Juan Hill was simply not the same as blood shed on the beaches of Anzio and Normandy. The suffering endured on Iwo Jima and Okinawa was heartbreaking but necessary, while losses in Vietnam and Iraq (2003) were deeply tragic and, in retrospect, pointless.
I know that our military doesn’t pick its fights; it just answers the call, and that’s a good thing. But why must we continue to pretend that the quality of the call is irrelevant? Blind patriotism is shallow patriotism, it seems to me. There’s nothing wrong with American pride as long as it’s laced with a dose of humility and an acknowledgment, perhaps, that military might, while necessary, is less a sign of national strength than of human frailty. It’s sad that our species still lacks the tolerance and wisdom to avoid armed conflict. And if that’s the case, and I’m sure it is, then military adoration is a strange way to celebrate the glories of America.
Despite the claims you will hear on the Fourth of July, not everyone who wears (or wore) a uniform is a hero. I was one of the fastest typists of the Vietnam era and I’m proud of the uniform that still hangs in my storage closet. But to call me a hero insults the remarkable courage of real military heroes, in wars both necessary and foolish. And not just their courageous deeds, but their grinding endurance in combat. Rick Atkinson’s masterful trilogy on the Anglo-American struggle against the Germans in World War II describes the troops’ harrowing descent into a primitive drudgery where, as one soldier explained: “We learned to live simply as animals, without hope for ourselves or pity for another.”
Who could object to honoring that kind of heroism? Not me. But military heroics are not unique to America. Every side in every conflict produces what it perceives as bravery. What’s distinctive about America is not the military’s protection of our national idea, but the idea itself. It’s that idea that we pause to celebrate on the Fourth of July.
And, what is that idea? Most of us call it “freedom,” but the distinctiveness of American freedom has evolved. No longer are we the world’s most functional democracy. No longer does our economic system provide the best opportunity for upward mobility. Still, no one can match our free expression, our cultural energy and our remarkable tolerance for difference.
Compared with most others, we excel at “live and let live.” The Sunni and Shiite, Russian and Ukrainian, Hutu and Tutsi, gay and straight, socialist and libertarian, vegan and carnivore seem able to live in relative harmony on these shores. The army is not called out on Election Day, and the leaders of the losing side are not tossed into prison.
Despite some rough spots, e pluribus unum remains our greatest achievement and should be considered for top billing on the Fourth of July.
Steve Berg is a Minneapolis writer and consultant.