combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2006

Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage

Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.
Jonathan Swift ["A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately entered into Holy Orders" (1721)]

From Sea to Shining Sea

It's a common expression. Oh, I just LOVE .... The outburst could be in reference to mother, spouse, puppy, ice cream, or sunny weather, generating joy, delight and happiness, at least for the moment. It's that indefinable something, that visceral experience we find hard to express in the glib form of a bumper sticker, but we know it when we see it. We also love our country and those who keep it safe and secure, setting aside holidays like Independence Day, Memorial Day and Armed Services Day as a commemoration. Call it patriotism, national pride, or allegiance, it is a mixture of feelings that range from admiration to xenophobia, from boastfulness to zeal, a compendium of loyalty, evaluation and commitment, that like any loving relationship, is as fascinating as it is complex.

Think of the kindergarten pageant where a group of five-year old pilgrims and their Indian counterparts are celebrating the first Thanksgiving, complete with cardboard turkeys and cornstalks propped in the corner as part of the scenery. Weeks of effort have gone into the production to be performed in the cafeteria or gym with Mom, Dad and Grandpa sitting on stiff folding chairs, eagerly awaiting the entrance of Melissa or Jacob or Tommy while cameras click to preserve their fifteen minutes of fame. The wonderment in the children's eyes says it all. They were told that it had been a cold winter and the settlers faced starvation, all the while struggling to adapt in the unfamiliar surroundings. And they understood the generosity of the Indians that helped to plant the food and feed the turkeys, despite their fear and distrust. So when the costumed children approach the table laden with the first good harvest, the piping voices of little Johnny Pilgrim and be-feathered Chief Moccasin Foot convey nothing but sincere gratitude for this, the land of the free and the home of the brave.

On the way home, there might be talk about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and of President Lincoln having freed the slaves who were brought from a mysterious dark continent to work in bondage without any hope of freedom. Later the children will learn about the Civil Rights Movement and about Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for equality, understanding that even when a country or a person makes a mistake, it can and should be rectified. Not unlike unquestioned love of Mom and Dad, their senses will wrap around George Washington, Honest Abe, Paul Revere and many other heroes of legend and truth, as they learn what our society deems to be honorable, decent and good. Without a doubt, they truly love their country.

But patriotism goes beyond the childlike adulation of heroes. It also encompasses respect for the soldier, sailor, marine or air personnel who spend days, weeks and sometimes years away from family and loved ones in order to serve and protect. That includes the eager high school grad who enlists in order to accumulate enough money for college and now finds himself carrying a full pack along the bombed-out streets in Iraq. It conjures up the young men who enlisted on their very birthday during World War I and II, persuading a weeping mother to Sign Here, giving permission for him to go and fight for his country. It also includes the Career Regular whose home is shifted from pillar to post, depending on his country's need. And it encompasses the child whose surrogate has replaced father or mother who are fighting on distant shores. Without marching in lock-step behind waving flags or brass bands, or riding down Wall Street in a confetti parade, they have reached into their inner resources and responded to the call. And so as we honor our military during Armed Services Day, are hearts are filled with gratitude and pride, for they are also the embodiment of what we see as right and good.

There is also a sadder side to patriotism, namely the commemoration of wartime casualties. Those having lived during World War II will never forget the gold stars hanging in so many living room windows for four long years, or the terror when receiving a telegram that began, "We regret to inform you ...." Subsequent wars created their own symbol, as a tied yellow ribbon or simply the American flag, followed by the murmured prayer for a safe return. Those who died were among the members of the regular services, conscripts and volunteers, whose tour of duty suddenly changed from a nine-to-five desk job to combat on foreign shores. They may have gone with mixed feelings – fear, despair, or just plain annoyance. But they went because of duty, honor, and yes, patriotism. So on Memorial Day (formerly Decoration Day begun during the Civil War), we designate the day as one where we place flowers on the graves of veterans. On this day, the cemetery plots are covered with flowers and flags as family members acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice, a mixture of pride, gratitude and loss.

Veteran's Day (formerly Armistice Day) originated after World War I to similarly honor those who served their country, and a spot at the Arlington National Cemetery is designated as the Tomb of the Unknowns where the official commemoration is held every year on November 11th that represents all the services. To that end, an honor guard from the 3rd U.S. Infantry keeps day and night vigil. It is a somber and moving tribute, guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and in any weather by Tomb Guard sentinels, considered to be the best of the elite. The guard is changed every hour on the hour from October to March in an elaborate ritual and from April through September, on the half hour until closing time. At that time, an impeccably uniformed relief commander appears on the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard. After the ceremony starts, the relief commander walks out to the Tomb and salutes, then faces the spectators and asks them to stand and stay silent during the ceremony. In these moments of reflection and reverence, the participants and audience alike acknowledge those whose courage will never be known. The people might have come in as tourists, visiting another one of the Washington sights, but they leave exalted, filled with the sense of national pride that honors the fallen who died representing what their country stood for.

Along with days of commemoration, heroes might be honored with inspiring statues or plaques along with busts of favorite sons and daughters. Significant wartime battles have also been celebrated, such as the replica of raising the flag on Iwo Jima. But there is a monument that reveals a darker side of patriotism. That is the Viet Nam Veteran's Memorial Wall in Washington D.C., a memorial to those who fought in the most unpopular war in our history.

Beginning with the American Revolution and encompassing the Spanish-American war and two world wars, our citizens have proudly declared we have never lost a war ... until Viet Nam. From the mid-60s and even before, some half a million Americans slogged through the jungles and rice paddies of East Asia, fighting heat, insects, and an undefined enemy, while here at home the people raged, fomenting a near-revolution. There were those who burned their draft cards and those who enlisted, knowing full well what lay ahead. There were mothers and daughters who marched in protest, and sisters and wives who hid their tears while saying goodbye to loved ones on their way overseas. There were rallies and counter-rallies, with many universities occupied and closed by angry students demanding they be heard. Governmental representatives were also divided, and the presidential conventions were surrounded by riot police.

One important aspect of democracy has to do with freedom of expression. A large number of citizens said that we had no business being in Viet Nam. Did they over-reach? Or were they weeping inside, saying that this is not what America should stand for? The war ended after some eight years of active conflict, both at home and abroad. This time there were no parades or statues to honor those who served. Meanwhile, the debate continues.

Then in 1979 a fund was established to create a Viet Nam memorial. It was dedicated on November 13, 1982 as thousands of war veterans marched to its site. Made of two long blocks of granite in a sunken walkway within sight of the Washington monument and Lincoln memorial, it contains the names of thousands of Viet Nam veterans who died. Since then, millions have visited the wall, some to mourn those who were killed, or later died, others to reflect upon their own complicated feelings about love of country and duty when called.

Adlai Stevenson declared, "When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self respect."

Beyond the magnificent Rockies and the Mississippi shore is the bright-eyed wonderment of a new American citizen. Beyond a child's delight at Disneyland, there is the awe-struck expression when seeing the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C. Beyond offering the world the telephone, the electric light bulb and the Internet, is the awesome knowledge that we live under the first workable and longest lasting Constitution in the world. Such feelings and hundredfold more can be called patriotism. Or we can accept our ambiguity and call it national pride. And that says it all.

contributed by Beth Staas

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones