Nothing brings tears to my eyes and goosebumps rippling down my arms faster than hearing the first strains of our national anthem. In the music I feel the history of America, in all its ugliness and beauty, the storied past of a country I love.
I also believe that those who choose to kneel during that song are just as patriotic as those who don’t.
I bleed blue and wear the labels of “liberal” and “proud American.” The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and the Republican party does not have some sort of monopoly on patriotism. Sorry, right-wingers; just because you’re waving a larger-than-life flag doesn’t mean you love America any more than I do.
Am I often disappointed in our country? You bet — the last four years more than ever before. The ridiculous shitshow of a Trump presidency, coupled with the fact that the latest election was Just. So. Close, leaves me disheartened more often than not. But I’m also disappointed in my kids sometimes, too, when they make poor choices. That doesn’t mean I don’t still love them with all my heart, and I’m still proud of them, even when they need to do better.
I want a better America. We need a better America. But in the process of breaking down current structures and rebuilding new ones, we can’t forget to give credit to the folks who have been — and still are — willing to risk their lives to keep us strong enough to focus on it.
My grandfather, Charles Collier, was a World War I veteran.
When he was ninety years old, he wrote an account of being on the frontlines at the Battle of St. Mihiel:
“This is an anniversary of sorts; important to no one but me.
On this night in 1918 the 77th Field Artillery had just finished a forced march of approximately 33 hours to reach our assigned position on the battle line at St. Mihiel, France.
We had marched night and day, beginning at twilight through the first night, on through the day and through to the second night until about 3 or 4 a.m. when we camped for a few hours’ rest.
I spent the rest of that night lying on a brush pile in the steady rainfall for which France is famous. At daylight, we were called to place our guns and begin the task of carrying ammunition to supply them. By nightfall we were ready to fire our first shots of the Battle of St. Mihiel.
At midnight the command to commence firing sounded, and the only proper expression I can think of to describe the sound is ‘all hell broke loose.’ Hundreds of guns, from the little to the big, and long-range cannons thundered as one and continued through the night.
Here in the quiet of our family room with no sound but the labored pound of my two-fingered typing, the sound of that experience seems like a dream.”
As I read that and let it sink in, I marvel at how awful it all must have been, starting with that 33-hour forced march (I balk at taking a 33-minute walk, TBH). I think of this, and all the other stories I heard him tell, and I realize that his isn’t a unique experience. This hellscape and all the atrocities of war were the experiences of all the soldiers fighting alongside him for a cause they believed in. His story is everyone’s story. And I’ll be damned if I’m not going to recognize their sacrifices; patriotism is not reserved solely for Trumpers.
It’s not just my grandfather; I have a family full of military veterans. Three uncles, one in the Navy and two Marines (one of whom was killed in the line of duty). Two brothers-in-law in the Navy and Air Force. My father-in-law spent six years in Vietnam during his service in the Army. And, perhaps my favorite of all since I had a front-row seat to his service, I’m proud to be an Air Force veteran’s wife. They all have stories. They were all impacted in various ways. And though only one of my family members made the ultimate sacrifice, they all willingly signed on for the possibility — as have millions of others throughout history.
I’m so tired of the trope that only Republicans recognize the contributions of our servicemembers, that Veterans’ Day — and every other remembrance day rooted in patriotism — are reserved for the right-wing. Just because we’re not trying to “make America great again,” but instead change America so that it is truly great for every living soul here, Democrats are so often seen as anti-American. And nothing could be further from the truth.
Writer Marybeth Glenn nailed it in a piece for Arc: “Many have a hard time acknowledging our past atrocities while embracing a dedication to country, and I believe that’s because we’ve distorted what patriotism really means. They’ve been convinced that good ol’ American pride can’t coexist with sordid history, so they develop a selective memory, which leads to a patriotism rooted in fantasy. As a result, people across our nation speak of patriotism like it’s currency, cheapening it to a collection of empty platitudes. You receive more patriot points if you have a kneeling soldier silhouette on your profile picture, or if you drape the colors of the flag across your chest, or if you claim to ‘stand for the flag and kneel for the cross.'”
I’m not going to let anyone tell me that I’m not allowed to be proud of the veterans in my life, or that I don’t love and value my country just because my perception of patriotism is different than theirs. The symbols have become the thing, and displaying them loudly is nothing more than a performative act. But isn’t true patriotism the act of working toward a better America for all Americans? It’s not in the bald eagle on your T-shirt or your MAGA hat, folks. Patriotism is in the voices at a protest. It’s in the grassroots work to dismantle racism, the shattering of glass ceilings by women who couldn’t vote 100 years ago, the championing of programs to help distribute our American resources more equitably.
Your bumper sticker and your stars-and-stripes profile picture frame on Facebook do not make you a patriot. The love for our country, and the hope for what it could be — even when getting there is an ugly, messy process — is where true patriotism comes from.