As we pause today to honor America’s veterans, dead and living, and reflect upon their service and sacrifice, it is appropriate to think again about the ways and means of patriotism.
Next year, the college I lead will celebrate 60 years of commitment to ROTC. Dickinson Colllege has a long-standing academic arrangement with the US Army War College, which is located in our city. Across the centuries, many of our graduates have been military leaders; today, scores of our alumni are on active duty. One recent graduate, a young lieutenant, lost his life serving in Iraq; another was severely injured in Afghanistan.
At a recent commencement, I had the particular joy of sending 575 bright, ambitious students into the wider world – five of whom would later receive their commission into the Army. During my address, I reminded the audience of our college’s American Revolution origins, praised the democratic tradition, and urged our students to advance that gift with the education they had received.
After the program, however, my spirits were dampened when an audience member stopped to ask me a pointed question: “Why was 'The Star-Spangled Banner' not played during the ceremony?”
My questioner's posture was clear. It didn't matter what I had said during the proceedings or how deeply our college is involved in service to our country and community. Since we had failed to meet his expectations about how to run commencement, he concluded that we are unpatriotic.
This incident was yet another example of how America has become a nation of loud and prescribed patriotism. Apparently, if you want to prove you are patriotic, you must comply with some self-appointed citizen checklist – a list that might demand a particular anthem, flag display, lapel pin, or bumper sticker. According to this checklist, patriotism must be loud and visible. It must proclaim and even provoke.
My critic is entitled to his point of view, but many of us have a different concept of what constitutes authentic patriotism.
I think back to how I was raised by a father who was clearly patriotic, but who would never fly a flag on any national holiday or talk about his 30 years of military service. He was a man who would always buy a poppy on Veterans Day (and ask that I buy one, too) but not wear it. This was a man who taught me that patriotism was not so easy as flying a flag on a certain day, but rather was a profound, deep commitment that absorbed your whole being and propelled you to service.
I also think back to the founder of our college, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a revolutionary who is believed to have written the first address to the American public on patriotism. He also signed the Declaration of Independence and served as surgeon general of the Middle Continental Army. And yet he cautioned against a standing army (General Washington did not hang him or accuse him of lack of patriotism over this) and stated unequivocally that an American form of patriotism must also be defined by “quiet service” to one’s fellow human being.
In that spirit, he argued against slavery, the inhumane treatment of the mentally challenged, and the neglect of education for women. He volunteered to remain in the infested city of Philadelphia and to serve the poor there as a physician during raging bouts of yellow fever. His patriotism was focused on advancing the practical “stuff” of democracy.
We would do well to remember this distinctly American vision and respect once again those who embrace a steady yet quiet patriotism. For many of us, it is in commitment, understatement, and service – and not flagrant display – where the strength of our nation truly resides. On our most somber of days, when we honor our nation’s veterans, let us recognize everyone's right to love their country in the way, manner, and time of his own choosing.
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College and a 1971 Army ROTC graduate.