May 25, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Remembering what patriotism really means

Cynthia DewesWhen I was little, World War I was something that had happened more than a generation earlier. Thus, it was ancient history as far as I was concerned. I had no idea why it happened, nor did I care what it caused or failed to achieve.

All I knew was that World War I happened mostly in France. My only personal memories of it were anecdotal stories in the family. My great-uncle, a young Norwegian immigrant, was a U.S. Army truck driver in France so we knew about that aspect of the war, but that was about it.

When World War II came along, I wasn’t much more savvy about world affairs than I’d been about the so-called Great War. Most of my information came from the movies and film newsreels that I saw every week, with pro-American propaganda a natural component therein.

My four uncles serving in the U.S. armed forces gave me some details I might otherwise have missed. One was in the Seabees, a Navy unit which built installations and facilities for the military. The others, all Midwestern farmers or small-town boys, naturally joined the Navy to “see the world.”

The Seabee got as far as Hawaii, and one of the sailors ended up as a cook in Rhode Island for the duration. The other two saw action in the Pacific Theater, including one fleeing overboard when his ship was struck by a Japanese kamikaze pilot. So I learned something about far places, cultures that seemed strange, and the old truth that war is hell.

Still, I understood only vaguely what caused the war, what resulted from it, and even the geographical places where it occurred. I believed, and still believe as an adult, that it was a just war. But the politics and subtleties of it escaped me at the time.

From my own experience, then, I can understand why young Americans today seem unsupportive of, or indifferent to, national initiatives by the government and other sources beyond their personal control. They simply haven’t lived long enough to make reasoned judgments about their world, nor are they given much time nowadays to reflect on whatever they do understand.

Of course, as the age group of people who will be called to fight and die in wars, they may not be enthusiastic about such initiatives. Nor will they see a need for certain taxes or laws, or feel “patriotic” about embracing these things.

So where does what we used to call patriotism exist today, if it exists at all? We associate the word with certain wars, including the American Revolution and WW II, but also with honoring those who serve our country and its ideals, such as the military, firefighters, police, jurists, and plain old good citizens.

Ultimately, the ideals on which our country is based are what we have always valued, and should value today without cynicism or despair. Because they are truly valuable in a religious sense, we should be teaching our children these ideals so that they, too, may become good citizens, good children of God.

American ideals are based on “self-evident” truths that all (wo)men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We’ve been mandated the freedom to follow God’s will in the best way we see fit, while encouraging others to do the same. That’s what we should remember and feel patriotic about on this Memorial Day.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

Local site Links: