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