In 1991 I wrote an article about patriotism.
It wasn’t much. I simply explained that the flag waving and bugle playing and all that great stuff really wasn’t what it all was about. It was really about family and duty and caring for your brothers and sisters. Patriotism is the best things about being human.
I know these sorts of ideas may seem trite to some. I imagine there are plenty of folks out there who don’t believe in God or Heaven – or whatever you’d like to call either. Perhaps they believe in other things. Perhaps they believe in nothing at all. And that’s fine – belief or non-belief isn’t mandatory, but making some kind of choice to do something for other people is.
I can’t help but think of all those commercials and paid “news reports” – some with the President himself, extolling the need for volunteering – asking for people to give of themselves. And yet, half a world away, young men and women are doing just that. They are volunteering to protect the rest of us against a very real enemy. You just haven’t seen the faces of those killers, personally. You hear instead, the platitudes of a government led by cowards. You listen to propaganda – or worse – you believe total fabrications intended to ramp up the volume of hate and despair.
I know the face of hopelessness. I know its’ bitter taste, and can tell you personally what it is like to look into the eyes of the kind of creatures who caused the gaping hole and all the misery in New York. These individuals are no longer human. They aren’t fighting for their families – they aren’t serving any duty, holy or otherwise. They are in fact, insane.
Individuals like that, and all those who enable them – even to a large extent, many in our own government – are just husks. They are empty, lost individuals shuffling through a decaying landscape. For them, the suffering of average people is not real, and the sacrifices made on their behalf simply do not even come to mind. They can’t possibly see beyond their own needs, and so, in their mind, how could there be anyone else who does? How could there be any real kindness and any real giving – without a taking? For these people, how could there even be a God in the face of so much thoughtlessness and emptiness in the cold vastness of the universe?
It is within that barren landscape of soul, that hate and terror and oppression are born.
But there is an alternative and it is always within reach. You can simply choose to care. You can simply try your hardest to be a better person than you were the day before. You can be the one to say a kind word, to ask a simple question, to do a selfless thing and to honor those who are giving up themselves in every possible way, so you will be happy and safe.
I have had the greatest honor of wearing the uniform of my country. But it is as nothing compared to the greatness of those who have come before me and those who have come after. I have known both. I have had friends who flew gliders into France on D-Day. I have listened to the stories describing a sky on fire as gliders exploded in balls of flame and bodies of comrades fell to earth. I have known men who were officers in the Underwater Demolition Teams. Their stories are told in pieces – the pieces they are allowed to speak about, and the pieces which their voices will allow them to tell. I have known veterans of Korea and Vietnam and there’s a sadness there, too great for words.
And most recently, I have spoken to a number of my active duty brothers and sisters. I dread the future because it holds the chance – the day – when those voices will go silent and I will never know their fate. My time and my efforts were like a blink compared to these people.
And so we come to the meaning of it all. Patriotism is this: a belief and love for your fellow man, and for an idea that became a country and a people. It is about being more than skin and blood and bone. It is simply about transcendence, and hope, and the willingness to give everything up so that the person next to you – or someone you never met - will be free and live a full life. You don’t have to understand it, but you do have to respect it.
Michelle Obama once described a particular moment as the first time she was proud of her country. With her and her husband choosing to take yet another vacation as the annual wreath is laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I would have to say it is the first time I am truly and deeply ashamed of our President.
But this is still America, and those brave souls being remembered on Monday, died so he and the First Lady could do as they wish. That sacrifice and that gift – all given for nothing in return, is the true measure and meaning of patriotism.