Thoughts on Memorial Day

Well, not on Memorial Day literally, as that’s come and gone…but I was catching up on my reading at According To Hoyt, and Sarah’s Memorial Day post made me think. (AtH always makes me think, which is what I like most about it.)

On Memorial Day, the daily MSN home-page poll asked if you flew an American flag for the holiday. I occasionally can’t resist answering, so I clicked the “yes” button. There was indeed an American flag flying out on my front lawn above the mailbox.

The answers were 68% affirmative. And 90% crap. Even in the places I’ve lived where population was overwhelmingly conservative and unusually patriotic, flag-flyers were a very small minority. Nowhere near 68% even there, and especially not in the progressive-liberal college town I live in now.

Yet a near super-majority of MSN’s visitors wanted to go on record on Memorial Day as flag-wavers. Clearly it’s a social signal. There’s some fundamental aspect of this country that people want to be associated with, even if only through the fleeting illusion of virtue. Even if, on most other days, they pretend to hate the very existence of nations and their colored rags.

What is it that makes all those people want to make other people think they fly the flag on Memorial Day? After all, it’s a holiday mostly about war and death. And we’re not supposed to like those things.

Here’s how Sarah Hoyt puts it (emphasis mine):

Americans, by definition were given the best reason to fight.  We are something new in the world of men, a tribe of laws, a nation forged by an ideal. We are so bizarre the chances of our surviving much from our founding were low.

Fortunately we raise enough young men willing to fight for the ideal, even when the ashes of their ancestors aren’t here — unless you count their spiritual ancestors, of course — and enough scientists and inventors to have the best military in the world. And we also understood early on that the best way to defend our freedom was to fight for the freedom of others.

Yeah, sometimes we misstep. And sometimes our leaders are in thrall of shiny foreign ideologies and get us deep in things best avoided.

Just about everyone agrees that the Vietnam war was one of those missteps. My dad spent a year and a half there as a field medic in an armored unit — a sacrifice he didn’t want to make. He was newly engaged and had other plans. But his country called him, so he went. I’ve read his Vietnam journal, and it’s clear that he was miserable out there and hated every last second of it. But he did his job the best he could anyway.

If the whole endeavor was a pointless waste (and I’m pretty sure it was), that doesn’t diminish his honorable effort. The fault lies not with the men who went out to fight, nor with the country itself, but with the government. You can love your country, serve it well, and still hate some of the things it does. I’m patriotic not out of allegiance to the government (politicians and bureaucrats deserve none), but out of reverence for the Constitution of the United States of America.

My ancestors were people who loved what that flag stands for and came to America because they needed the freedoms and civil protection it promised. Even when this country failed to live up to its founding ideals and they faced violence from their own neighbors and persecution from the government, they held to their convictions and never lost faith in the promise of the Constitution.

By flying the flag, I signal that I believe in the same America they believed in. A place and people forged by the ideals embodied in the Constitution of the United States of America.

To Hoyt again:

[Americans] also understood early on that the best way to defend our freedom was to fight for the freedom of others.

And that’s why I fly the flag. Not only to honor the people who answered when their country called and gave their lives as a result, but to honor all who have been willing to fight for an ideal that says the freedom of other people — even those you disagree with — is worth defending. And not only with guns or in foreign lands, but here at home, in the everyday struggle to preserve the natural, human, and civil rights that the Constitution was written to protect.

That’s also one of the things I find so compelling about the era of the Old West. Sure, there were desperadoes and outlaws and assorted injustices, but mostly it was chock-full of hard-working people who took big risks and spent their lives building something worth fighting for. Freedom meant something to them, and they made something of it. Something personal, and yet far bigger than they were.

So that’s what I’m thinking of when I fly the flag.

Were all those people on MSN thinking any of that when they hit “yes” to say they fly what they’re not actually flying? Probably not. But I hope that maybe subconsciously a lot of them felt it — the idea that your neighbor’s freedom matters just as much as your own. That’s what made this country, imperfect as it is, “something new in the world of men.”

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