July 4th has always been one of my favorite holidays. I have loved the fireworks for their color and their noise! Along with the boys of my childhood, I played army and imagined great heroics. Later, I began to learn the history and the civics of the United States and about the leaders who dreamed of a republic where “all men are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Later still, I learned about the countless, nameless individuals who sometimes led and sometimes followed others to build the country.
Early in June we remembered the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and recalled the horrors and heroism of that crucial day. News media interviewed survivors, and even those who may have known little or nothing about the invasion of Europe had to be awed by the stories that were told and retold. I felt compelled to join the handful of Romans who gathered in the city auditorium to watch “The Longest Day.” I am still in process of re-reading Stephen Ambrose’s incomparable account “D-Day.”
But July 4 calls us to celebrate far more than the heroism of one battle or one group of World War II vets. The courage and sacrifice of the military and of the families they leave behind as they serve are perhaps the most obvious focus when we think of patriotism. But that focus is too narrow. Others serve and protect and deserve our gratitude-police and firefighters, first responders and disaster responders, forest rangers and street repair crews. And though not in the obvious path of danger, teachers and health care workers, parents and public servants, entrepreneurs and day laborers each have a place and have stories to tell if we are to celebrate true patriotism.
There are the pioneers, common people who crossed an ocean or crossed a mountain or a prairie, all in the face of great hardship. I was raised on cowboy movies, and as I have been able to travel “out West” I have been intrigued by that harsh and magnificent part of our country. When I fly for several hours and look out the window from 30,000 feet I am dumbfounded that settlers could have walked across that country behind oxen and covered wagons. More than that, my reading reminds me of the tremendous courage and resilience needed to simply survive a move westward from civilization into wilderness. It is interesting to be reminded that in the late 1700s the land that is now Rome, Georgia, would have been western wilderness to the colonists on the coast.
Thinking about the growth and expansion that so defines America also crashes against horrible realities. The lasting impact of slavery and Jim Crow and of broken treaties with Native Americans haunts us today. The treatment of early Irish and Italian immigrants and of the Chinese who provided much of the labor to build the transcontinental railroad are some of the dark stains on our history. Perhaps our greatness is in spite of these terrible flaws. Our failures to live up to our high ideals that all men (really, all people) are created equal are, at least in part, because those ideals are so very high. And though I am only an amateur historian, I believe those high ideals hold a unique place in the history of world civilizations.
I write in praise of patriotism in part to challenge the actions of saber-rattling politicians who made very sure they would never be close to a real saber. They did not risk or serve but still find it too easy to send young warriors to fight real or imagined enemies. I write in part because patriotism is too easily high jacked and distorted into belligerent nationalism. Those of us who grew up in the ’60s recall the virulent taunt “America, love it or leave it.”
I still shudder at the thought of white supremacists marching through Charlottesville in support of the very kinds of ideology that cost thousands of lives on Omaha Beach 75 years ago. My father and father-in-law were WWII vets who fought Nazis; my uncle died doing so. I recently read the following quote from a pastor in Texas, “(White Nationalism) is rotting the soul of the church in America … We can’t be silent about this anymore; it’s too dangerous.” I believe the pastor’s warning is a fair one. So please do not try to convince me that there were good people on both sides of that Charlottesville march. And spare me any attempt to equate love of country with fear and exclusion based on bullying, prejudice and ignorance.
Much will be written in the next few days about July 4, about the meaning of patriotism, and about its practice. I write today to claim the great ideals and the great people who make up my country, the United States of America. We are far from perfect, but for this day at least, I want to celebrate what is truly great about us. The problems cry for attention, but on this July 4 they can wait on the back burner while we light the sky with fireworks.