21st-Century Patriotism

Real patriotism isn't political.

The Underground

Duty. Honor. Country. One of my teammates added “ugh.” I half-chuckled at her as we walked past the West Point motto emblazoned on the fence of the academy’s rugby pitch, two brisk Novembers ago. Surely she was joking and did not genuinely mean to deride the mission of the venerable United States Military Academy. I turned to her quizzically and the joke was on me. “It’s just … ugh.” We lost 58-21 to the black- and gold-clad cadets.

Around a year later, I made the mistake of logging into Facebook on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, which was especially ill-advised after 0630 ROTC physical training at the MIT track. “I am ashamed to be an American.” “As an American, this is embarrassing.” And so forth. I was prepared to encounter anger, outrage, confusion, and grief that day, but I was not expecting to encounter what I felt was nothing short of … unpatriotic. I went about my day as incensed and hurt as some of my classmates, but for entirely different reasons.

That said, frat-house chants of “USA! USA! USA!”, prominent personal displays of various permutations of the U.S. flag, and a great affinity for firearms don’t epitomize patriotism either. There are YouTube channels dedicated to exposing supposed “patriots” who fashion themselves to be members of the U.S. military and wear the uniform (usually wildly incorrectly) to try to pass themselves off as service members. That’s not patriotism, that’s stolen valor.

For some of us, loving this country is pretty straightforward, with tangible commitments and connections to service and sacrifice. For others, their relationship to their American identity is one that can be filled with questioning and doubt even while acknowledging the brighter parts of being American, especially in light of recent executive orders on refugees and immigrants. There is room on the patriotic spectrum for both kinds of people.

My teammate has valid criticisms of the U.S. military, but I know she’ll stand up and cheer when I commission as a U.S. Army Officer in two years. I know that (I hope) most of the Facebook users who exhorted such seemingly un-American sentiments over the last few months aren’t planning on pulling up stakes and abandoning their lives in the United States. Surely, Americans divided along the patriotic spectrum must be united by something more deeply ingrained and profound than outward differences.

Maybe we can take a page out of retired Marine General John F. Kelly’s book. During his confirmation hearings for Secretary of Homeland Security, someone dared to suggest to him outside the chamber that he should wear an American flag on his lapel. General Kelly served over 40 years in the Marine Corps, including deployments for Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. Robert Kelly, his son, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010.

No one of sound mind could accuse Gen. Kelly of being anything less than a true patriot, regardless of his lapel, considering the sacrifices he has made and decorated service he has rendered to this country. He certainly doesn’t need to wear an American flag to prove his patriotism to anyone. He replied very simply to the misguided suggestion with all the steeliness and brevity befitting the stars he used to wear on his uniform: “No, I am an American flag.”

Herein lies the problem. We’ve allowed identity markers to color our views of what is and isn’t patriotic. Political affiliation, occupation, race, gender, religion, immigration status, gun ownership, socioeconomic status—we fixate on checkboxes, which we imagine tells us everything we need to know about those “other” people. Behold how accusingly the Midwestern Republican assumes that the elite college-educated protestor despises American tradition, and with what moral snobbery the secular coastal elite sneers at the “uneducated masses” in flyover country who “cling” to their guns and religion in the name of American freedom.

“American” ought to outweigh superficial demographic markers. The first-generation college student, their immigrant parents, the soldier who enlists out of high school, even the protestor—they are all American flags in their own right. Despite appearances to the contrary, American values and principles unite us more often than they divide us.

Words (and Facebook posts) alone don’t prove or disprove our patriotism. Our hearts and our actions are the true measures of our patriotism, whether or not we even choose to call ourselves “patriot.” Real patriotism reflects gratitude and dedication to making this country truly great. That can take so many different forms.

We must look beyond politics. Patriotism doesn’t depend on who the president is, which party controls Congress, or which policies are implemented. True patriotism runs deeper, withstands the test of time, and doesn’t waver with changes in the national scene. Real patriotism can acknowledge and work to fix flaws in our country while still finding ample cause to be grateful. Every American can find something about the United States to celebrate. Not everyone will bother to try, but everyone can.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator living in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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