The Definition of Patriotism


I was babysitting when it happened. The pre-teen had disappeared upstairs to do school work on the computer, and I decided to watch some television. I flopped down on the couch and began channel surfing. Cartoons, cooking, do-it-yourself, sports, and then a flash of fire and smoke that seemed all too real. I remember watching with a blank face and emotions, feeling myself growing smaller and smaller, shrinking into the constraints of the couch as I watched the Twin Towers crumble to the ground through an amateur tourist’s camera. I did not have a true inkling of the events that would follow this catastrophe, and I doubt few did. All I knew was that something terrible and historic had happened on this eleventh day of September, and that I had never felt so alone or so terrified.
Although I am certain my story scarce compares to the experiences of those at Ground Zero, it is indisputable that this terrorist attack impacted all Americans to some extent, whether emotionally or physically. For weeks afterward, I remember glancing up at the sky every few minutes, feeling a shoot of fear if I heard or saw anything resembling a plane. Over the coming weeks, months, and even years, flags seemed to spring out of the woodwork, waving from car antennae, hanging from every house, and fluttering at half-mast on every corner. A defiant gesture that whatever came out of this event, the American people would remain supreme. Yet with this nation-wide claim of love of country came a raging dispute. Some said Bush’s decision to immediately invade Iraq and Afghanistan in pursuit of those who attacked us on American soil made him a patriot. Others claimed the precise opposite, some even going so far as to call Bush a covetous mercenary, hungry only for the oil that Iraq possesses. [Howard Zinn “Dying for the Government” para.5] Instead, they called those who opposed Bush, such as John Kerry, true patriots. This has resulted in general confusion and a broad misunderstanding of the meaning of patriotism by the general public.
The word patriotic has become a rote adjective, used by any wishing to make the advocates of their ideas seem right in their words and deeds. The claim “he is patriotic” in present times is used by many as a smoke screen and a blinder to those who cannot or refuse to research and decide for themselves whether someone is a patriot of his country or not. The true meaning of patriotism has been forgotten, instead imposed as fact for whoever chooses to claim its virtue.
In the words of Howard Zinn, patriotism is “loyalty to the principles of democracy” [“Dying for the Government” para.9]. Loyalty requires action, and it requires action to the right ideals. Patriotism is not the result of moving speeches or claims to its existence, but it is the result of actions and the reasons behind such actions. Furthermore, being a patriot is not a job description; it is a lifestyle. One can be a patriot as a soldier, a political leader, or an average citizen.
A few years out of college, my father was a newly married, well-paid electrical engineer for Rockwell International Corporation, a defense company. Specifically, he worked with the gyro-navigation systems for submarines. Yet he felt a special calling on his life, and consequently in 1984 he enrolled in the Marine Officer Candidate School at age 23. His goal was to become a high performance fighter jet pilot. This desire held an extensive amount of risk, as there were no guarantees whether he’d end up flying jets or driving a supply truck. In Officer Candidate School, nearly half of his fellow students dropped out, another estimated 20 percent did not complete flight school for various reasons, and only a measly 10 percent of his original class actually made it into flying jets. My father was a part of that 10 percent, and after transferring to the Navy, spent the next nine years flying F-18’s aboard aircraft carriers. He flew on two six-month cruises, one around the world, and flew missions over Kuwait during Operation Desert Mop-Up. He missed two wedding anniversaries and my younger sister’s birth. What made my father sacrifice a secure job with substantial pay to join the military and potentially lose his life? One could argue he had an extreme desire to fly high performance jets. Although this is true, this explanation alone is not the answer. My father can testify that “Guys who said ‘It’d be fun to fly’ never made it past the second week”. It was not from outside pressures, as he was the first in his family to join the military. He joined our nation’s military because he “desired to serve [his] country in a potentially exciting and rewarding way”. I see this as the ultimate act of patriotism: giving up one’s life and will and offering it in service to his country.
Not only is it patriotic to fight for one’s country, it is also patriotic to support those who have fought and many times died in the military. In 2001, my mother, sister, and I had the opportunity to volunteer at a non-profit event called the Vietnam Wall Experience. This organization travels around the country with a life-size replica of the Vietnam Wall, providing public awareness and support for Vietnam War veterans and family members. Elderly men and women begged assistance to find the names of their loved ones and related their stories to us with glistening eyes. Several veterans stood up on a stage and gave their testimonies and expressed their thankfulness to the administrators of the Vietnam Wall. I could see in everyone’s face how much having this reminder of the honor their lost soldiers received meant to them. The desire and willingness of everyday citizens to promote knowledge of our country’s history and to demand respect of those who willingly gave their lives for our nation makes them true patriots.
Many people in our nation’s history have been christened as patriots – Patrick Henry, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Pat Tillman. Whether as a soldier, a political leader, a spokesperson for equal rights, or just an ordinary citizen, their actions and their reasons behind such actions, not words, is what made them patriotic.


About becklegacy

Emergency Veterinarian by night; Crossfit athlete by day; Redeemed work-in-progress by the Grace of God.
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