Stories Told

Remembering my patriotism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

On this Independence Day, I’m republishing this story I told in 2018 in which I reflect on patriotism.

Arlington National Cemetery

My dad was in the Navy, as was his dad before him. At enlistment age I was college bound, but Dad asked if I’d at least consider Navy ROTC. I said no.

That had to be hard for my Dad to hear. In his family, men served their country, period. Looking back, I’m surprised now that he didn’t insist.

I was excited about building a future in software engineering. I didn’t want military service to stand in my way.

Also, I was afraid I couldn’t cut it. I was not sure I had, and I felt sure I could not build, the physical toughness to serve. I have always been far more of my mind than my body. I remain unathletic, even clumsy.

I have also always had a hard time blindly following orders. In my younger years I needed to internalize the logic behind an order to execute it wholeheartedly. Even today, unless I am all-in on something I struggle to do it well.

I was sure these barriers would lead to military misery for me. Middle-aged hindsight tells me that ROTC could have helped me overcome these physical and intellectual challenges. If nothing else, it certainly would have paid for engineering school.

Yet refusing to serve my country led me to question my own patriotism. Did I love my country? To what lengths would I go to support it in a time of need? Could I fight and die if necessary?

I had a long conversation with my uncle Jack about it. He was always easy to talk to at a time when Dad often wasn’t. I could fight and die, I allowed, in a war where our very nation was threatened. I could not fight and die in the only kind of war fought during my lifetime, which I judged to be about policing foreign interests. Jack listened carefully and affirmed my concern. He then reminded me that whether I had already enlisted or if I were drafted, Uncle Sam would not care about my feelings if he needed me to fight. He also said that if I skipped to Canada as some had in that last conflict, that I would be turning my back on my country and I should never return. I left that discussion grateful to have been fully heard. But I had no better answer than before.

When the first Gulf War began I was out of college and working in software engineering. My anxiety spiked — I was draftable and this conflict looked serious.

By then I’d grown up enough, and Dad had mellowed enough, that we could talk about the most serious matters. So I called him. I could hear it in his voice: he, too, was deeply worried that his sons might be called up. He wouldn’t fully admit it, but I caught a whiff in his words that he wasn’t sure he liked his sons being drafted to a conflict that wasn’t clearly about protecting our nation. His patriotism remained firm, however. He gently reminded me that when your country calls, you simply go. On that call I reconciled it in my mind and, finally, agreed with him. It gave me a sort of peace.

But then no civilians were called. Since then, no other conflicts grew serious enough that the draft was a possibility. And now I’m well past the age when my country would require me to fight.

Lately I’ve become deeply interested in 20th-century history, and as our family trip to Washington approached I had coincidentally been watching a Ken Burns documentary about World War II. It told the war’s story through the memories of several soldiers and some of their family members. I came away from it feeling hell yes, that was a war worth fighting and  a cause worth dying for. And so, so many men died.

Those thoughts and feelings still filled my mind when Margaret said she wanted to go across the river to the National Cemetery. Exiting the subway we realized we had to rush to make the next changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We hurried up that hill, arriving seconds after the ceremony began. And what a ceremony, filled with every ounce of somber precision a soldier can muster.

Until then I had thought high military ceremony to be cartoonishly ridiculous. But as I watched the changing of the guard I realized how much training and practice are needed to achieve that polish and perfection. And I saw how it was this very effort that made the ceremony an appropriate honor. That unknown soldier had given his all, and so we offer our utmost in tribute. A long-lasting tribute, as a guard has been posted continuously since 1937.

It brought fully back to me what I had been taught from the time I was a boy: the good life we enjoyed in the United States existed not just through our natural resources, hard work, and ingenuity, but also because many people stepped up to protect it when it was threatened. It was good to be reminded, and to remember those that died in that protective service.

One more changing of the guard remained that day, and we lingered to see it begin. I had moved into a position directly across from the tomb, where I saw how all of America stretched out before it.

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13 thoughts on “Remembering my patriotism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    This is interesting, and especially on this day. I remember reading this in 2018 as well.

    One of the things that has been striking as I’ve moved around the country, was how military service has been either a part of the landscape, or not. I knew three people that went to Viet Nam, period. I know zero people where I now live, that have any military service, compared to when I lived in Indianapolis, where I knew a lot of people who had been in the military. I have to say, I highly doubt that any of those people went into the military with any patriotic fervor, but mostly because they got out of highschool, didn’t have money for college, didn’t like school anyway, and didn’t have many options.

    When I lived in Washington D.C., I met many people whose families had a history of military service, but NOT as canon-fodder, but attending the military colleges and academies. I learned one thing (and they really didn’t want to talk about it) from these people in late night after-parties winding down at the end of the day: the military is the employer of last resort for people that have zero options or have royally screwed their lives up. Many of the people in the military have even had to get waivers to get in because of criminal records or just not smart enough to qualify. Actually this seems to be an argument for compulsory military service, if the people that run the country wouldn’t keep getting us into conflcits that have nothing to do with us, and that we don’t belong in. Anybody with a brain doesn’t want to die for those.

    My Father fought in WWII, and got shot to smithereens in Guadacanal, where he fought the Japanese literally in hand-to-hand combat. He barely made it home, altho with a long recovery time and a few medals. He was also a life long “cloth-coat” Republican (for those who don’t remember Nixons checkers speech, that mean “not rich”). He also hated who he called the “rah-rah” boys, i.e. people who blindly followed the propaganda of any situation, rather than thinking with their heads. I was in the last draft for Viet Nam, and luckily got a high number. My Dad asked what I was going to do if I was called up. I said probably go to Canada. He said: “Good”, he couldn’t see his sons getting killed to defend DuPonts rubber plantation business, and profits, in Asia. The “domino effect” of communism was always a joke.

    Sometimes the highest form of patriotism is being smart enough to push back when your country is going down the wrong path. America’s current “bent” for authoritarianism is disturbing (mostly for the lack of education and reasoning by the people blindly following and believing right wing radio, and thinking Hillary Clinton is eating babies), but I also am troubled by the blind deification of the military. Just because your idiot brother, who barely made it through highschool in the parking lot 4:20 club, had zero options so he went into the military; doesn’t make him Patton.

    If you’re reading history this is also a good time to reflect that in America’s last “legitimate” war, WWII, we didn’t win that war alone. 298,000 Americans died in that conflict. compared to 27 million Russians that ground down the German military, fighting with everything from sticks to rocks, to finally bring the German military machine to a halt.

    Love your country, but not blindly….

    • It sure does seem like the people who choose military service do so because other options aren’t available to them.

      I’m glad that military service wasn’t compulsory in my time, but I wonder sometimes if it should be. You make a very good point that it’s got to be easier for those in power to send troops to fight because none of those troops are remotely related to them.

      • DougD says:

        In Finland there’s compulsory military service for men. I think for 6 months to a year. There’s several benefits there, they have respect for authority and chain of command, they can handle firearms properly and respect them as dangerous tools. I’ve met a lot of Finns and that’s generally true, although most Finns I meet are degreed professionals, not sure if it’s true for all.

        • Israel too, and I’m sure other countries. I agree with the benefits. I might have been able to squeak through one year of that.

  2. Thank you for sharing this again Jim. I needed it. My own patriotism has been wavering for a few years, a struggle that seems to worsen every day. This isn’t the country I grew up in and the social and political climate where I live has become almost too much to tolerate.

    I have often wondered what would happen if something like a Pearl Harbor occurred today. Would our nation band together for the greater good? Would people volunteer for military service or to make sacrifices here on the homefront as our grandparents did? Would having a common enemy be enough to unite this deeply divided country?

    The optimist in me wants to say yes but I have my doubts.

    The last living World War II Medal of Honor recipient died last week. He was from West Virginia and the media down there have treated his passing like that of a head of state. It has been touching to see all the coverage of his life and they even broadcast his funeral yesterday. Woody spent a lifetime representing those who didn’t come home and speaking out for Gold Star families. Hearing him speak and bring to the world his own brand of responsibility and love of country was a refreshing change. Right up until the end, he had a to do list a mile long because he saw flaws and wanted to step up and do something about it.

    I guess that’s what happens when you truly believe in something.

    But I digress. There’s no shame in a young person not wanting to serve their country through the military. I wouldn’t be good at it either even though I respect every person who puts on that uniform. From what you have described, maybe it would have helped you but there’s something to be said for knowing your limits and working with your strengths. There are other ways to serve – through your community, church or by simply being a good citizen and it seems like you have done those things.

    • My patriotism is as strong as ever. However, the word “patriotism” has been redefined to mean something I don’t recognize anymore. I’m not that kind of patriot.

      You should blog about that Medal of Honor recipient.

  3. Steve Bryan says:

    Thank you for this story. I experienced similar emotions as you in my youth. I turned 18 in 1971. I did not want to get drafted and go to Vietnam. It did not seem and later historical reflection has not cast its outcome as a positive formative point in American history. At that time as an 18 year old I was not sure I could go fight in that war. Ultimately, I didn’t have to make that decision. My entry into draft age coincided with the beginning of the draft lottery. I had extremely high numbers and after that the numbers needed were filled by those younger than me. I never had to face the possibility of being drafted.

    My father was also of the generation that fought in WWII. His was a large family and four or five of the boys, not sure of the number now were WWII veterans. The oldest was part of the Normandy invasion did not return home. As you said our recents conflicts do not have the sense of purpose that WWII had.

    • I was only 3 in 1971; the only way Vietnam affected me was that special news reports kept interrupting Captain Kangaroo.

      I am forever glad I never had to decide what to do about fighting in a war I didn’t believe in.

  4. tbm3fan says:

    Now imagine being 18 in 1972 and your lottery number for the coming year was 13? It took the Selective Service three tries to get me to come in for a pre-induction exam due to me moving between home and college. They schedule for San Diego when I was home and then scheduled for San Francisco when I was in school. The third time was the threat to show up or be classified 1A automatically. So i got bussed to Los Angeles, put up in a hotel overnight, had the physical the next morning and was bussed back to San Diego. Still remember what we were told during the written exam. If enlisting do your best and if in the draft it doesn’t matter.

    Now my father served in the Pacific under MacArthur from joining at 17 in April 1943 till separation in May 1946. All his contemporaries from the 50s, 60s and 70s of his that I knew were all WWII vets. Today I no longer know any live WWII vets but several Korean war and many Vietnam vets since I volunteer on the USS Hornet.

    So what would I do? I am in my second year of college. Would I go to Canada? No. After the physical I went into the Navy recruiting office in San Diego to talk. I was in college, I was a double major in Biology and Psychology, they were interested and I could sign up for OCS. They would pay for college. Oh boy at $89 a semester it was nothing. I took the papers to look over as there was a rumor going around. On January 27, 1973 Nixon ended the draft. However, in the back of my mind I always wonder what may have happened had I gone OCS and been commissioned a Naval officer. I am an orderly, detail, precision oriented fellow in regards to me while at the same time sees no point in dumb orders. Career or not?

    • During the first Gulf War, I was still draftable had there been a draft. I decided that if a draft were instituted and my number was up, I would enlist in the Navy. I believed that I would be a terrible fit for the Army, but a less bad fit for either the Navy or the Air Force. Given my family’s Navy history (both my dad and his father were sailors), the Navy was the obvious choice.

      It’s sad that there are next to no WW II vets left. They were a visible connection to a war that mattered to all, and reminder that there are some things worth fighting for.

  5. Thanks for sharing this. You described perfectly the reasons I never considered enlisting, and I was in the relatively small age group that never had to even register for the draft.

    I don’t think I knew anyone who enlisted beyond one cousin who was in the army for a short, uneventful time in the mid 70s.

    I have the same hindsight you do and think that military experience might have been good for me.

    • I knew that many I went to high school with enlisted. But none of my small circle of friends did. It has seemed for all of my life that people enlisted when they had no better options and didn’t know what to do with themselves after high school.

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