“Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections the name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism” – Farewell Address, George Washington
Today, we celebrate 245 years since the Declaration of Independence, recognizing the courage and passion of enlightened citizens who altered the course of history. A “common country” was born, in part, out of the idea that a nation of many disparate parts could come together under the banner of collectively shared values and experiences. George Washington’s common country is the treasure chest that holds our most sacred truths: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We cannot abnegate this democratic republic’s success through its growth and evolution over the last 245 years. Nor can we deny the “pride of Patriotism” – an impassioned and reasoned affection for the values based upon our most sacred truths – is warranted. Nonetheless, we also must acknowledge the precarious nature of patriotism during our present time. What does it mean to be patriotic in 21st century America?
The seed that germinates as American patriotism is an individual’s special affection with and personal identification with this nation and its core values. American patriotism colors national memory. In other words, what America chooses to recognize about its history and the perspectives America chooses to foreground illustrates manifests as the relationship between what is believed about this nation and the reality of who the nation really is. Moreover, efforts to define patriotism in America also illustrate the complex relationship between race, ethnicity, gender, and identity in America with the concept of oneness. We are one nation, but we are a whole composed of many disparate and complex parts. Individual freedom is a core value within American patriotism and within that context political philosophers like Maurizio Viroli (1995) have argued that to have a country means citizens must have a moral obligation to preserve the common good. He expands on this by adding, patriots have “no obligation to impose cultural, ethnic, and religious homogeneity at the expense of other peoples’ liberty, nor to deny civil and political rights to any of our fellow patriots”. I believe we must ask ourselves, given the present state political and social discourse, just what the common good is in the 21st century.
“Men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread,” Richard Wright once wrote. For the American patriot, self-realization involves acknowledgement and acceptance of not only what has been exceptional in America but also what has been dark and ugly. It also means coming to terms with the long-term effects of inconvenient truths. My life experiences drive my scholarly research on American patriotism. I am a veteran, having served nine years in the US Navy. I joined the Navy just after my high school graduation and my affinity for military history and culture was shaped by my memories of my father’s service in the US Air Force and my uncle’s service in the US Marine Corps. Additionally, I was influenced by conversations with several older men in my neighborhood who had served in the Navy during World War II. Each of them—the men in my family and the men in my neighborhood—reflected with pride about having served this country, but I don’t remember any one of them talking about patriotism. I began to wrestle with the nuances of patriotism first when I returned from my deployment to Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991. By that time, I had been in the Navy for seven years and I had experiences that were difficult to resolve. I had been appointed a midshipman, an officer candidate, early in my Navy career and spent time at the Navy Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (NROTC) unit at Purdue University. At that time, I was one of three Black people in the entire unit and if I was not in my uniform, I was unseen and unacknowledged by my white contemporaries. After returning from my deployment to the Persian Gulf in 1991, I was awarded my second Sailor of the Quarter Award for my unit, Naval Beach Group One. It was a proud accomplishment that affirmed my belief in meritocracy in the military. I had been promoted, I had earned a warfare qualification – Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist – which, in those days, was a distinctive accomplishment for someone who was not a senior enlisted member. I had been awarded the Navy Achievement medal for my service while deployed to Southwest Asia. Yet despite all these things, when I was afforded the honor of representing my unit along with four other members of my unit at the taping of a TV show celebrating returning military members, I was still confronted with being both seen and unseen. As I met our group and we loaded in the car for the drive to Los Angeles from our base in San Diego, one of the other members turned to me and said, “Garner, what are YOU doing here?” I was stunned by the question. The only context I had for that question was that I was the only Black person in the group. Before I could answer, the officer in charge immediately stated I deserve to be there as much as anyone else in the car. Nevertheless, in a space where I thought I had earned parity with my white peers I realized I was invisible until I was an inconvenient existence in the white spaces I encountered. Being seen and unseen in the supposedly democratized and patriotic military universe gave rise to my questions about what patriotism means. My experiences triggered my awareness that W. E. B. DuBois’ concept of double consciousness still existed in contemporary times. I wondered whether my feelings may have matched the experiences of other Black veterans like the men in my neighborhood when I was growing up. I wondered if these feelings could have been why the men before me didn’t talk about patriotism while, nonetheless, expressing pride about their service to a country yet encountering racism in the military.
The essence of patriotism in America, I believe, can be found in analyzing how the descendants of once enslaved people resolve love of country with disdain for America’s systemic oppression. As a nation, are we able to rise above our present political, social, and cultural challenges to forge ahead and continue this experiment in democracy? As a guest editor for The Journal of Veterans Studies I will publish a special edition later this month that will introduce a scholarly conversation on the topic of American patriotism through the lens of veteran experiences. I believe American patriotism is an intersectional space—a space occupied by dissimilar human beings who conceive of and experience the phenomenon that is American patriotism based on individual lived experiences. I also believe that out of the many we can still be one if we are rooted in the courage and humility to confront truth. Scholarly analysis through the lens of veteran experiences is, I feel, an important – and, albeit, relatively uncharted – pathway forward in the endeavor to confront truth. I invite you to join me in this important conversation both here on my blog and at the Journal of Veteran Studies.