On Being American
I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
Yankee Doodle do or die,
A real live version of my Uncle Sam,
Born on the 4th of July...
--Yankee Doodle Dandy, by George M. Cohan
On March 23, 1775, after a series of "intolerable Acts" by Britian, Patrick Henry stood before the Virginia Convention and told those assembled that he didn't much care what course others might take, but "as for me, give me liberty, or give me death."
The speech was widely reported (which in the 1700s, before the Internet and blogs, meant it took weeks to make it outside Virginia). Only a few months later, on April 19, 1775, the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired in Concord and Lexington. Yet, it was not until July 4, 1776, that the United States declared its independence from Britain. In a few days we'll celebrate that historic date, and it seems a proper time to reflect on what it means to be an American.
In 1775, battlefield medicine was pretty much limited to bandaging wounds and hoping against hope they were not infected. A wounded soldier might not die immediately, but disease and infection claimed three times more lives than did bullets and bombs.
Weapons were single-shot muskets fired at exceptionally close range, sometimes less than 100 yards. The injuries inflicted by the large, soft, .50 caliber lead shot were large, bled profusely, and were routinely mortal. Still, only roughly 8,000 combat deaths (and 17,000 non-combat deaths) occurred during the Revolutionary War.
Less than 100 years later, in 1865, another war was fought on U.S. soil, this time pitting brother against brother. The union was preserved, but the cost again was terrible in terms of lives. Historians say more than 625,000 Americans died, 364,000 on the Union side, and 260,000 on the confederate side. Battlefield medicine had advanced somewhat, with wounds being treated with amputations and antiseptics, but there are still small southern towns where the stories of that horrible time in American history are told as though they happened yesterday. This because there is a lesson there: the union we celebrate on July 4th is something precious. We cannot forget the sacrifices that bound it together.
To be an American is to know your history. It is to know the names like Antietam and Gettysburg, where American soldiers on both sides died for something they believed in: freedom.
It is to know like Bastogne, Inchon, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Because freedom and American know-how prevailed and great victories were obtained.
It is also to know places like the Chosun Reservoir, Bataan, and Corregidor, where Americans made awful sacrifices for their country. Being an American means being conscious of the fact that the blessings of liberty have been protected and preserved by the sacrifices of ordinary people.
It is to recognize that we are not a "melting pot" as is so often claimed, because we do not all meld together into one homogenous whole. Rather, we're a stew pot, with bits of brown and black and white, and red, and seasoned with eccentrics, charlatans and billionaires. Being American means respecting the sacrifices others have made to see to it that you got a high school education, and individual freedom, as birthrights. It is passing along the teachings of the last generation to the next one. As a nation we are one, but we retain our individual character. We are free to pursue our individual passions so long as in doing so we do not tread upon the rights and privileges of others.
And there are men and women who make sure that if we step over that line, or harm others, that we're held accountable.
Being American means understanding that the law is there to help you, and that while our political process is far from perfect, and at times seems broken, good men and good women still live within that system and good things can still be accomplished. Being American means understanding the checks and balances. If the will of the people is such, Congress can pass legislation, and if the President is opposed, he can veto. But his veto is not permanent - it can be overridden in Congress. Similarly, if Congress oversteps, the judicial branch is there to curb Congress if it exceeds the structural protections of the Constitution. And if Congress or the people feel that the Supreme Court has been wrong, then there are procedures to amend the Constitution. And this same process exists at every state level.
Do we have problems? Sure! Politics is infected with money and with corruption. Yet, meet this challenge: find a political system - any political system - that is not similarly infected. As a nation we've overcome presidential plots, congressional inaction, and outright criminality in government and come out wiser and stronger for it. Because, in our hearts, we believe in our system. It may not be perfect, but then again, neither are we.
We fight amongst ourselves for sure. We have a long history of it. Many of our ethnic and religious minorities have been badly mistreated. We work within our system to fix those inequalities, but even then we are sometimes violent. Our civil discourse, which should foster rational debate, often fosters ad hominem personal attacks and often involves less listening and more shouting. We rarely agree as a nation on any one thing. We spend billions to convince others our views are the right ones. Others spend money to counter us. We fuss, and we fight, and we lament our losses. Yet, what happens when, as a nation, we are attacked?
Those same mistreated ethnic minorities become our greatest strengths. The Navajo Indians used their nearly incomprehensible language to frustrate Japanese code breakers during World War II. The Tuskeegee Airmen, who couldn't drink in the same bars with their white comrades, fought savagely alongside those aviators over the skies of France and Germany. The Japanese-Americans who fought in the European theater did so while many of their families were interned in camps in the Northwest. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. I may disagree with those who hold different political views, but when we're attacked we come together. That is how it is when you're an American.
On September 11, 2001, two aircraft flew into the World Trade Center, an act singer Toby Keith described as "a mighty sucker punch." Thousands perished in the blink of an eye, and others suffered horrible deaths from fire or falls. But there were Americans there that day, and their fellow Americans came to their aid. Fire battalions responded and were wiped out to a man when the buildings fell. Over 600,000 people were stranded on Manhattan and sought refuge at the water's edge. And in a feat far more impressive than the evacuation of Dunkirk, ordinary American citizens with boats - some that were tugs, some that were fishing vessels, and some that were just pleasure craft - descended on Manhattan and carried those 600,000 to safety. No civil defense drill prepared these men and women to carry out this feat. No training had been given. No practice had been done. This was common men and common women with uncommon valor who simply stood up and went to work rescuing their fellow citizens.
The story of this boat lift is told here. I encourage you to watch the video and remind yourself of what it is to be an American. And if your eyes are dry at the end of that video, then Sir Walter Scott wrote a poem for you:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentered all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored , and unsung.