By the time you read this, the chorus of “ooh’s” and “ah’s” that accompanied the fireworks will be a memory and the lingering smell of expended fireworks may still be in the air. But, the American flags that hover over our federal, state, and local facilities or wave in front of homes all around town will be there long after the memories and the smell of gunpowder have dissipated.
In the epilogue to his 2001 book, “Making Patriots,” Walter Berns recounted the story of a foreign diplomat who was visiting the U.S. Embassy in his home country. As the man approached the compound, a young Marine was beginning to ceremonially lower the two American flags at the entrance. For about ten minutes the diplomat watched in amazement as the young Marine reverently lowered the flags and folded them. He then placed them on a stand in front of the Chancery. Once his tasks were complete, he apologized for the delay and said, “Thank you for waiting, Sir. I had to pay honor to my country.”
It was a simple act, but it made a powerful impression on the diplomat. He told Berns, “I have had to tell this story because there was something about a lone Marine carrying out a ceremonial task which obviously meant very much to him and which, in its simplicity, made the might, the power and the glory of the United States of America stand forth in a way that a mighty wave of military aircraft, or the passage of a super-carrier, or a parade of 10,000 men could never have made manifest.”
I’ve spent the better part of a day wondering about that young Marine. Was he just an aberration? After all, patriotism isn’t as fashionable in America as it was a generation or so ago. Long before he wrote “Making Patriots,” Berns told the story of 4th of July party he attended while he was on the faculty of Cornell University. When someone asked the wife of an economics professor if she had enjoyed the fireworks, she responded, “Yes, but I could have done without all the flag waving.”
Berns didn’t know why the woman disliked the flag waving. Maybe she’d been the victim of discrimination. After all, women haven’t had it easy in this country. They didn’t get the right to vote until late in our history. Even today, the right to equal pay for equal work is still more of an ideal than a reality for many American women.
Unfortunately, our national pilgrimage toward a “more perfect union” has often been painful. African-Americans came to America as bondsmen. They were deemed non-persons and denied the rights that come with citizenship. Minorities of all stripes, Hispanics, Irish, Chinese, Jews and Arabs have all had to scratch and claw their way up the ladder of the American dream. We’ve had to pay in blood to correct the injustice of slavery. We’ve had to march in the streets when our political leaders refused to listen to us.
But, there are still quite a few of us who continue to wave the flag. Why? Are we fools who’ve lost our grip on reality? Not at all! We flag wavers are actually quite realistic. We’re keenly aware of this country’s shortcomings, but we love this country nonetheless.
I grew up embracing the ideal of America as "a city on a hill," yet I spent my early life in Boston’s shabby tenements and government housing projects. I served a tour in Vietnam, believing that we all had a responsibility to serve our country, yet I never met the son of a policy maker in the year I was there. I understood the bitter realities of life as well as any man and I wasn’t the only one. In 1965, a young man named Milton Olive became the first African-American recipient of the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. He was on patrol in the Iron Triangle when an enemy soldier threw a grenade at him and four of his fellow soldiers. He picked the grenade up in his right hand and pulled it to his body, taking the full force of the blast. He died almost instantly. The others lived. There were no dramatic last words. If there had been I think it would have been fitting for them to have been, “I had to pay honor to my country.”
Milton Olive had felt the sting of prejudice many times in his life, but he was willing to sacrifice his life for others. Was he just a flag waving fool? Was he a pawn or a dupe? No! Milton Olive was, in the truest sense, an American patriot. We need more like him, not less.