While listening to a presentation at a town hall meeting recently I was surprised to see the presenter actually cry. She mentioned the recent government scandals, the incomprehensible Bergdahl swap, the acrimony of our national discourse, and most recently, the precipitous decline in American patriotism http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/06/27/stunner-44-percent-not-proud-... I assured her she was not alone, that we all feel that way to some extent, some days more than others.
How are we to deal with the relentless onslaught of shock and despair that assails our senses in the news? How do we assuage our sadness? It always helps to return to first principles and core virtues. This means history and memory. And that is appropriate on this Fourth of July holiday. We must remind ourselves of what Tom Paine wrote, those many years ago during America’s early struggle to be a nation. “THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”
George Washington had these words read to the American soldiers as they boarded the boats to cross the frozen Delaware River to attack the Hessians -- German mercenaries -- at Trenton, on Christmas night 1776. These ragged Americans (only 2000 strong from an army initially of 20,000) were all that remained with Washington after five months of fighting rearguard actions against the British. The Revolution was surely at a crisis, but under Washington’s leadership the Americans went on to defeat the British in two other battles within the next 10 days. These successes, after so many defeats, lifted hearts from despair to hope and enabled the Americans to continue the fight for freedom and independence which was to last for another seven years.
Those were the times that tried their souls. These are the times that try ours. We don’t love America because things are going swimmingly. That is the “summer soldier’ of which Paine speaks. No, we stand by her because she has gone astray. We, however, have not.
How are we Americans to understand ourselves? Are we what the current critique of America in the media shows us? Are we the day-to-day maelstrom of images and events that overload the senses? The ceaseless cacophony can surely overwhelm, and though it can reveal us to ourselves in some sense, it is not the essential self. That essential self, the core of Americanism, is the time honored ideals and traditions that have come up through our history embodied in the Founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, and the speeches by our great statesmen.
The words in these documents resonate with the deeply felt desire for what it means to be fully human. In these documents, voice is given to the universal aspiration for the right to “life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness”; “That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed” These ideas must be defended. But there is a cost. Remember, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
Moreover, what is especially poignant in the news these days is the suggestion that the loss of American lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror, is wasted. This might be interesting if it wasn't so shocking. What really gives meaning to American servicemen's sacrifice is not whether America succeeds in its efforts, though that is important. What gives meaning to their sacrifice is that they stood in harm’s way for what America stands for; that their “last full measure of devotion” was for freedom -- a worship-word among us Americans. There is no waste in that. There can never be a waste in that.
Furthermore, we do not honor the men of the Alamo because they slowed down General Santa Ana long enough for him to be eventually defeated, though they did. No, we honor them because they stood in harm’s way for their commitment to freedom and independence. We do not honor the men of Wake Island because theirs was the only occasion in all of World War II when an amphibious assault (in this case by the Japanese) was repulsed by shore-based guns, though they did. No, we honor them because they fought, and with distinction. We do not honor the men of Bataan because they slowed down the Japanese, though they did. We do not honor them because they won their battles; they didn’t. We honor them because they fought and did us and themselves proud by standing in harm’s way: the duty of soldiers. There is the honor they seek. There is the honor we are to understand. It is not for us to honor the soldiers who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. They have already honored themselves and us. We would do well to remember the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg, “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
There is contained in the human mind aspirations that recognize notions of self-fulfillment and individual contributions to the greater good. It is this recognition and its actions that achieve a kind of nobility for the human condition. Yes, human nature can plumb to the darkest recesses, but also soar with the “better angels of our nature”. Do we not see in the selfless sacrifice of US soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror, in the face of such indiscriminate violence and hate, a deep abiding desire to do good -- to bring representative democracy to a ravaged and benighted region? The higher good is there, make no mistake. That higher goal is to bring progress and self-government. It is that idea which is on the side of history. And as long as freedom rings in the hearts of men the sacrifice of American soldiers, and of the American people in these times, will leave a legacy to which future history will solemnly marvel.
Happy July 4th America