There was once a time when people who sought political change made sure to include Old Glory in their gatherings, marches, and protests to show their dissent was not only in good faith but patriotic. In a rejection of this tradition and what the flag represents, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this month authorized the painting of “Black Lives Matter” on the street in front of Trump Tower, in solidarity with the protests that have ignited episodes of civil strife not seen since the 1960s.
These three words, which have also been painted on statues of people deemed problematic for their historical shortcomings, seem to carry the same weight the Stars and Stripes once did. Similarly, many professional athletes are now permitted to kneel or even remain in the locker room during the national anthem or to print social justice slogans on their jerseys. Traditional expressions of patriotism have become taboo in the face of a movement that aims toward revolution.
What are Americans to make of this new orthodoxy? After all, for many of us, symbols such as the flag are inextricably linked to the sacrifices our forefathers made in some of our nation’s most perilous moments. For that reason, we proudly fly a flag in front of our home.
Forebears Who Fought for the Flag
Two of my great-grandfathers served in the Navy during World War II. One spent the war on an oil tanker refueling battleships and destroyers operating in both the European and Pacific theaters. With few armaments for self-defense, his ship would have been no match for surprise kamikaze attacks and lurking enemy submarines.
The other, a cook on the USS Spadefish, witnessed some action on one of the most successful submarines of the war as it sank more than 88,000 tons of Japanese shipping during five patrols. His ship’s flag hangs proudly in my grandmother’s living room and will eventually be passed down with the stipulation that it remains within the family.
Serving as a sergeant in an Army artillery unit, a third great-grandfather saw combat in the Philippines, where he earned the Distinguished Service Medal. Tragically, after contracting malaria during Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign, my great-grandfather’s weakened immune system made him vulnerable to ailments, and he died prematurely when he returned home after the war.
Drafted into the Army in 1965, my grandfather served a tour of duty in Vietnam, during which he received multiple decorations for valor that he preferred to keep private in the years after. Only 20 years earlier, his father fought in the same part of the world to defeat Japan.
My grandfather told me the only person other than his mother to tell him “welcome home” was a man selling T-shirts outside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1994. By his account, he saw no glory in war but understood he had a duty to serve his country when called upon and thereby to uphold the family’s good name for future generations. Military service was a commitment to both kin and country. I suspect my great-grandfathers would have agreed wholeheartedly.
The flag calls us to virtues — gratitude, humility, and prudence — that transcend our differences: gratitude for the efforts of our forbears to make America better than when they first inherited it, humility in adjusting to today’s realities while conserving noble traditions, and prudence in thinking of our rights as viable and sustainable only when we first commit ourselves to family, community, and nation. Our national tradition deserves to be passed on to our children so they too might enjoy the blessings of liberty, justice, and equality under the law.
America has a choice to make. Either it will tear itself apart in revolutionary fervor or aspire to the virtues of gratitude, humility, and prudence. The former calls for anger, division, and tribalism. It attempts to inflict pain on others for the sake of a political revolution with no clear end.
The latter requires that we celebrate and learn from history so we can grow into the “more perfect union” that heroes such as Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Susan B. Anthony fought for in the name of abolition and civil rights. They drew from the same well as George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, challenging the flawed social order that failed to live up to the truths of the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” They did not rebuke those ideas and aspirations but instead sought to fulfill them.
When I look at our flag, I cannot help but feel that it, and all the good it represents, must endure for posterity. If future generations are to look upon Old Glory and see it as a symbol of hope, freedom, and justice, we must always protect and defend what we know to be true about it.