Fourth of July Spectacular Continued:
by Jack Neely
A while back I was a guest speaker at one of those men's luncheon clubs. You know the ones. They don't necessarily call themselves men's clubs, and most of them now have a token female or two. They'll always point them out to you proudly. Most of them do good works, and the members care about each other, almost as much as members of any family.
It goes without saying that they're mostly patriotic organizations. There's always a flag in the room, and I've gotten used to the idea that, usually just after dessert is served, we'll all stand up and put our hands over our hearts and say the Pledge of Allegiance in its general direction. If you're not a member of one of these fraternal organizations, you may not have had occasion to say the Pledge since grade school, but they do it every week, all of them together: the young, preoccupied-looking businessmen, who look like they're worried about a contract; the jolly, established middle-aged fellows who make fun of each others' hairlines; the frail old veterans who can barely stand up to say it, but they do.
And I say it along with everybody, with my hand over my heart, even though a little history can ruin anything, and I know something about the evolution of the Pledge: that it was written by a young man named Francis Bellamy, a sort of apostate Baptist preacher who called himself a Christian Socialist, who introduced it in a Boston magazine for children called Youth's Companion in 1892. I've heard rumors that it was part of a big marketing ploy to sell flags to schools, which previously didn't have much use for them, but I prefer not to believe that.
This may not be something that many Southern patriots want to know, either, but a whole lot of what we think of as â“patrioticâ” originated in post-Civil-War promotions urged by the Union-veterans organization known as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), of which Gen. Wm. T. Sherman was a proud member. For its first few decades, Memorial Day was as a day to remember the Union dead, specifically. It wasn't about any other wars, or any other veterans. Before their efforts, the flag was rarely seen except on U.S. ships and over military installations, as well as the Capitol. Thanks to the GAR, the flag became an everyday sight.
The Pledge came out of the same general GAR-era movement. The words â“ one nationâ indivisible â” may have seemed intended to rub salt in the Southern wound; Unionist parents worried about the dark lure of Confederacy like modern parents worry about dope. The greatest embarrassment for a Bostonian would be to have a kid fall into the wrong crowd and turn out Confederate. When kids started saying the Pledge, much of the South was still resisting patriotic holidays like Memorial Day and even the Fourth of July. Knoxville celebrated the Yankee holidays, but whole states of the Deep South didn't.
Of course, the phrase, â“Under God,â” wasn't introduced to the Pledge until the 1950s, when Americans were more worried about the threat of Communism than Confederacy. Communism was generally in the business of replacing the idea of a deity. Americans wanted to emphasize, at a time when we had equivalent nuclear warheads aimed at each other, that we had an ace.
So that very short oath was meant as an inoculation against both Confederacy and Communism. It's intended to train our kids to avoid both conditions. Its historical anatomy is visible. Knowing the anatomy of anything, including a beautiful woman, can undermine its mystique. The Pledge is a good thing, even so. As long as we keep chanting â“with liberty and justice for all,â” a lovely phrase, we can't go too wrong.
What's considered â“patrioticâ” shifts a good deal with time. Which brings me back to that luncheon. There was a short program before my talk, and an amiable fellow wearing a suit and an American-flag pin got up and quoted a sort of manifesto. He talked for a while, and then said, â“It's the soldier, not the reporter, who gave us our freedom of the press.â”
As the only reporter in the room, I cringed a little bit, wondered if people were looking at me disapprovingly, this revelation that I didn't give them freedom of the press, after all. â“It's the soldier, not the poet, who gave us our freedom of speech,â” he continued. It's been a while, but I've published some poetry, too. Did this guy know that?
Then he said, â“It's the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gave us our right to demonstrateâ.â”
He rounded it out with a Christian prayer. As I monitored my blood pressure, I looked out at a whole roomful of men who sat there reverently. Part of what bothered me was that the words seemed to disparage American reportersâ"who have been killed and maimed in greater numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any prior conflict in historyâ"even World War II, which took one of our greatest, Ernie Pyle. I thought about Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded on international television just for trying to bring us the news, a necessity in a free society.
But my reaction was partly to the fact that the piece implied some contempt for mere civilians and their incessant nagging, as if the only honorable way to earn freedom is to shoot. It reminded me of when I was a kid, and my friends and I would play with big boxes of olive-green plastic soldiers. Germans were in gray plastic. We had several sets, mixed. One of us would get a new set every year, and we'd just mix them all together. It took care of attrition, from soldiers that had gotten buried or blown apart by firecrackers. But one time my friend Russell got a new set that included several civilians. Men in coats and ties and fedoras, women in skirts, some kids like us. One looked like a doctor, another like a nurse, another like a lawyer, another like a shopkeeper.
To us, at 10, they were all wimps, because they weren't soldiers. They were boring. They couldn't shoot. Russell suggested maybe some of them could be spies, but we never did anything with plastic civilians but bomb them into oblivion, usually pretty early in the game. We were impatient children, motivated mainly by the prospect of violent death. I grew out of that, I think.
But is something similar emerging as the new face of patriotism?
The idea of soldiers giving us our rights and civilians just getting in the way, with their impertinent opinions and non-soldierly ways, was an attitude I'd heard in the grumbling of a few conservative men, usually skeptical of an antiwar demonstration. I'd never heard it recited like that, cleaned up in verse form, over a PA, sanctified with a prayer. Were all the men at the luncheon in agreement? Did they have an idea about which soldiers, in particular, he was talking about? Did they disagree with, say, Jefferson who, though not a religious man, allowed that the â“Creatorâ” endowed us with our inalienable rights?
Perhaps misled by history, I had the impression that our personal rights, including those of speech and the press, evolved through centuries in English Common Law, well underway with the Magna Carta in 1215. The Renaissance recovered scholarship about the freedoms enjoyed by the Greeks. The Reformation encouraged non-clerical people to read, on their own, the New Testament, whose egalitarian ideas and implied rights had worried lords and priests for centuries. Later came British developments like the Petition of Right in 1628 and the mostly peaceful Glorious Revolution of 1688, which resulted in the first English-language Bill of Rights. Some civilians like John Locke and Edmund Burke and Thomas Paineâ"or Thomas Jefferson and James Madisonâ"did have something to do with establishing our rights. They described them, and in doing so, challenged the authorities to respect them. I'd like to think Locke, Paine, Jefferson could be considered reporters or, at moments in their best essays, even poets.
The Revolutionary War was primarily a war for independence, not necessarily individual rights. The rights earned through combat with the Redcoats were mostly the rights already enjoyed by Englishmen, which had evolved through centuries of peaceful negotiation. It could be argued that the Revolution's success laid the groundwork for permanently protecting rights, as laid down in the Bill of Rights, enacted a decade after the war's last battle. I'd always seen Anglo-American history as a testament to the human spirit, and a proof of the good of democracy and the value of human rights, and maybe of the value of human beings, that the concept of rights can evolve without armed combat. The very idea that such a respectful system did emerge through peaceful means can give you an otherwise unlikely sense of hope.
Soldiers perform a dangerous and often vitally important service for the nation. Most U.S. wars have been fought for noble or necessary reasons, to protect U.S. allies and U.S. economic and political interests abroad. They have liberated countries that badly needed liberating. They have protected American lives. With the arguable exception of the Civil War, and then only the Union side during the last 16 months of it, they have not been much in the business of passing out rights, at least not to Americans in America.
The luncheon recitation ended with an Amen, and then I was introduced. I wondered if I should say something. I had the impression that discussing my understanding of the origin of rights might be unwelcome, even unpatriotic. So, as usual, I just told some funny stories.
After all, it never does anybody any good to argue with anybody who says nice things about soldiers. Name a street â“Honor Our Troops Drive,â” and nobody will say it's a silly name for a downtown street, except to their pals, after a few beers. To say so sober, in public, would dishonor our troops. Likewise, say soldiers gave us our rights, and no one will argue. It's now the patriotic way to think.
Curious, when I got back to my office, I Googled the phrase â“gave us our freedom,â” and â“gave us our rights,â” a couple of predicates in search of a subject. The sentiment on the Internet is overwhelming: I didn't find references to Thomas Paine, or John Locke, or the centuries of refinement of English common law. You do see a stray and lonesome mention of â“founding fathers,â” or â“God,â”â"but they're distinctly minor, also-rans, compared to â“soldiers.â” Most Americans seem confident that soldiers bestowed us with rights.
I also learned that the short essay I'd heard in the luncheon group, though I'd never heard of it before, is well known on the Internet. Its origin is obscure. It's most often attributed to a Father Dennis O'Brien, Catholic priest and Marine chaplain during World War IIâ"but he reportedly denied that he wrote it. It's repeated on more than a thousand web sites, usually with O'Brien's name attached. The first one I found was accompanied by Lee Greenwood's â“God Bless the USAâ” (which of course includes the line, â“I won't forget the men who died and gave that right to meâ”). In 1999, it was read into the minutes of the Alaska legislature, apparently without objection.
I checked with some professor friends of mine who have also noticed the claim popping up. They affirm that the idea that soldiers gave us our rights is a fairly new idea that seems to have evolved and gained emotional force, if not historic content, in the years since Vietnam. One friend suspects it was a direct reaction to the antiwar demonstrations of that era, a sort of rhetorical bluff that became, in itself, an article of faith. The first to articulate it in the mass media may well have been Mr. Greenwood and, judging by the frequency with which his philosophy is repeated from mall speakers and on random websites, he did so effectively.
I was talking to an elderly friend a few years ago, a historical author who was a British veteran of World War II. He told me that in the UK for a generation after the war, there was a â“military cult,â” a semi-religious veneration for every soldier who had anything to do with defeating Hitler. Even though my friend was an object of their admiration, he says he found the veneration oppressive; he was relieved when it died away, sometime in the '60s. When he moved to America, he said, he was surprised that it prevailed, perhaps stronger than it had ever been in Britain.
You can make any claim about the value of a soldier above all other human beings, and it's like a dare. Call him a hero, no matter what he did in the service, and nobody will argue. Endow soldiers with supernatural significance, the power to grant human beings rights, and it becomes a truth.
Soldiers arguably protect our freedoms, though it's hard to think of most American wars, especially those fought overseas, as direct threats to our freedoms here. No foreign power since 1812, if then, has had a plausible plan to subjugate Americans at home. Krushchev wanted to â“buryâ” us; he knew he couldn't rule us. The Soviets could have blown us upâ"they had ICBMs firstâ"but they never had enough soldiers to occupy Denver, Peoria, Scranton, Detroit, Honolulu, Knoxville. For the last couple of centuries, the threats to our rights have come not from abroad, but from within, from House committees and nervous presidential administrations, from fear and apathy and, sometimes, from hyperpatriotic fervor. The soldiers who fight the domestic threats to our rights are domestic people: attorneys, judges, motivated citizens and, sometimes, reporters.
If this misconception is a problem even worth pointing out in a free weekly, it's not because soldiers get too much veneration, though we have to admit that the practical results of veneration, as far as pure veneration goes, are limited. So much of it seems an exercise to show off our own political sentiments, rather than to help any soldier or soldiers.
It's useful to think that maybe there are also peaceful and maybe useful ways to be patriotic. And it's a good thing there are some, because most of us aren't even eligible to serve in the military. Maybe there are more accessible ways to be patriotic. If you believe in the words of â“America the Beautiful,â” for example, maybe it's patriotic to pick up other Americans' litter. Maybe it's patriotic to find a way to get along without purchasing products that are likely to get our nation in even more trouble. Like, say, petroleum products produced in nations hostile to America or American values. Maybe it's patriotic to be honest with paying our taxes, so much of which goes to our soldiers and veterans' benefits.
And maybe it's patriotic, albeit rare, to take enough interest in local government to study the issues, learn about the candidates, and vote. If we have incompetent or crooked people in office, maybe it's because we, as citizens, haven't been doing our patriotic duty.
If we don't take care of what the troops are thinking about while they're away, we're letting them down, maybe even more than we would if we let a flag drag in the dirt, or sneezed through a Lee Greenwood song.
Our rights are here, and it's an American thing to believe that we have them. The trick, and it's not just something that soldiers can do for us, is hanging onto them.
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