A few years ago, a local chapter of the VFW asked me to judge a group of essays written by middle schoolers on the subject of patriotism. As a writer and former teacher, I was honored to do so. But, after reading them, I realized that none of the students knew the real meaning of patriotism. To all of them, patriotism revolved around the military, military hardware, the flag and the national anthem. Not the Constitution. Not the ideals established by the Founders. Not the American dream. Not exercising our right – our responsibility – to vote. Not affording equal rights to our fellow Americans – all of our fellow Americans.
Of course, the students were only parroting what they had been taught by their teachers and parents.
Like many Americans, they did not understand that, though admirable, military service is only one way to show patriotism toward their country. They did not understand that displaying a flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and placing a hand over their heart for the national anthem are only a show of patriotism – mere symbols. (It’s good to remember that the flag was not adopted until more than a year after the beginning of the Revolution, that our nation did not have a standing army until 1789 – 12 years after the United States became a country, and that the Star-Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1931 – more than 150 years after the shots were fired on Bunker Hill!)
The students did not understand that, in certain circumstances, it can be an act of patriotism to refuse military service; to stand up to government leaders by refusing to fight in an ill-conceived and illegal war. Were the soldiers who refused to follow orders and reported the war crimes at My Lai not more patriotic than those who murdered innocent men, women and children? Was not Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the lies of the Vietnam War, more patriotic than the politicians and generals who expanded the war based on false information? Were the Americans who protested and demonstrated against our pre-emptive invasion of Iraq not more patriotic than the administration who led us into it on false pretenses?
Of course they were!
If the kids’ definition of patriotism has become the accepted version, it’s not difficult to understand why our nation is perpetually at war. It’s not difficult to understand why our military budget dwarfs those of other nations. And if we honor the flag and the anthem without embracing the ideals they represent, is it any wonder so many Americans are willing to deny equal rights to those who look different; to those who love someone of the same sex; to those of a different faith, or those of no faith?
If we become outraged at football players who refuse to stand for the national anthem as a means of protest in order to draw attention to injustice while we praise the flag-waving bullies who threaten them, we have failed to grasp the Founders’ vision for our democracy. One in which it is as patriotic to call attention to our nation’s failings as it is to celebrate its successes. Indeed, it may well be more patriotic!
So what is patriotism?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” It’s fitting that the definition is so expansive. After all, there are many ways to love. And that definition is especially fitting for Americans, since the vision of our nation’s Founding Fathers was equally expansive. It’s why the Constitution they created has served us so well for so many years.