On Patriotism

Posted on May 9, 2023


Not too long ago a friend of mine, Susan Warner, asked me if patriotism was out of form. Her husband, Jack Warner, now deceased, was a veteran of the Burma theater in the Second World War and he loved this country.

Then on Sunday April 16, I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal by David McCormick and James Cunningham. “The Military Recruitment Crisis is a Symptom of Cultural Rot” certainly answered the question posed by Susan about patriotism. And McCormick and Cunningham, in doing so, presented one of the best argued descriptions of “rot” in our modern society.

Part of patriotism is service. As I wandered back a few years with my memory—sixty-three to be exact—I don’t remember thinking much about military service.

My father had been in World War I, my brother a 2nd Lieutenant in the Korean War, my great grandfather in the Civil War, and virtually (but not) all the cousins I knew of in my father’s family of eleven siblings had served. Below is a statue of a downed Alabama warrior of the 167th Alabama Regiment that served in the famous Rainbow Division during World War I.

World War I Memorial in New Croix Rouge Farm, France honoring Alabama’s 167th Infantry Regiment

So, as I was preparing to follow my trunk on the railroad express from New Jersey to college in Durham, North Carolina in the late summer of 1960, my brother Bill told me, “now, you will do service of course.” I kind of nodded as a seventeen-year-old accepts wisdom of parents and older siblings. And he said you need to go in as an officer, not an enlisted man.

So, when I had some free time in August or September, I wandered into the Duke main quad and looked for a ROTC program. I found the Navy before the Air Force and joined NROTC. Four years later I was commissioned and a few months after the short ceremony in the NROTC offices, I was on a Pan Am jet leased by the Military Air Transport Service taking off from McGuire AFG in New Jersey bound for Europe to meet up with my ship, the USS Donner (LSD 20) in the Sixth Fleet.

Was I patriotic? Not particularly that I remember. I was more interested in studying Duke coeds since I had gone to an all-boys prep school in New Jersey for the last six years of high school and needed some catching up.

Was my family patriotic? I think so. I felt, as I think all of us had felt, directly or indirectly, that we were part of a nation with certain responsibilities as citizens. It’s a feeling that seems to be lacking these days.

So, what is patriotic? Duty, honor, country all come to mind, from some slogan in our past. There were some glitches given the varying history of our country. My father was born into a South Carolina family and my great grandfather was indeed patriotic, but he– Frederick Van Clayton–fought for the Confederacy. My dear spinster Aunt Faith was the “family historian” for many years and she discovered an ancestor in the American Revolution, so all the ladies in my family can claim a place in the Daughters of the American Revolution. Does that make us all more patriotic?

My mother was born in Chile into a Chilean-German family, with deep roots both in the Hispanic and the German world. Her father—Antonio Reichel–hid some German spies in Chile during the First World War, precisely when the United States eventually went to war with Germany! As I studied patriotism a bit, I had to admit that it ran across national boundaries and often warring countries. A patriot in one country was the enemy in another.

All I really know on whether patriotism runs shallow or deep in my family is that I feel like I am a part of a whole. When I was commissioned an Ensign and went into the Navy in 1964, I felt comfortable assuming a natural role in my life as an American.

It is a feeling much the same way when my Christian faith pushes me away from “me” and into the community of Christians to work and pray and worship together, to be a part of the whole. A patriot—no matter how young or old, how experienced or a mere fledgling in the force—is also a part of the whole. I tend to think that in our country it dates back to the American Revolution.

Do you value liberty, freedom, equality, democracy, and all the other elements that God has gifted this country with? Are they worth fighting for? Indeed, a patriot does, although she may not be thinking of it as she gets dressed down in boot camp by a Marine Corps Drill Sergeant.

We don’t need to have universal military service, although some countries like Israel and Switzerland do. But perhaps we do need universal conscription to break the culture of “me” in our country.

True equality often issues from a common experience that subordinates all, regardless of sex, color, ethnic origins, or other new and somewhat kinky definitions of the human experience, like trans this and trans that, to the whole. So, that’s my suggestion. Let’s see if some bold politicians take it up. Perhaps one of our Senators, like Katie Britt or Tommy Tuberville.

Finally, I would be truly unfeeling to say my two years in the fleet didn’t change me for the better. Whenever I go into the VA Hospital for a shot or just my annual checkup, I am surrounded by patriots of all stripes, young and old, white and black, men or women, all who have one thing in common. We’re Americans, proud of it, and want to—in all our many direct and indirect ways—to defend and protect our country now, and into the future.

Published in the Northport Gazette, Wed. May 17, 2023