There is something about national holidays, these days, that brings out the curmudgeon in me. Memorial Day, especially so.
National holidays have become battlefields themselves. Rather than setting aside days to ponder and honor our national values, we now engage in flag-waving contests. Nationalism is loud, confrontational and in-your-face. Those of us who would subscribe to a quieter, more introspective brand of patriotism are shouted down and shamed. We are tacitly accused of not loving our country enough. With sneers and derision, we are invited to go live somewhere else if the United States—in its current state of upheaval, escalating class war and legislative impotence—is not good enough for us.
Because we can’t allow respectful silent reflection on the freedom we often take for granted and the cost of the campaigns embarked upon in the name of that freedom. If we did, someone might realize that these tear-misted photos of military graves or dirty and bloodied soldiers reverently hoisting the Stars and Stripes on battlefields throughout the ages, tagged with the soppy banner “Freedom Isn’t Free,” do not accurately represent the forces which send our young people to their destruction.
When you think about it, when was the last time the United States fought a war to defend OUR freedom? Seventy years ago, the Greatest Generation sent its sons into battle against Hitler and his allies. Though Hitler’s forces never set foot on the continental US, their dreams of global domination were indeed an imminent threat to our freedom. So though that war was as ugly as any, it was indeed a battle for freedom—ours and others’ across the globe—and needs to be remembered as such. But that was a long time ago, outside the living memory of most Americans.
What about our 21st-century wars? Iraq? Sadaam Hussein in no way threatened the freedom of the American people; even the most ignorant moron on the planet understands that by now. Afghanistan? What, exactly, ARE we doing in Afghanistan? Especially since the elusive Osama Bin Laden, rumored to be sheltered there while he raised up an army of Islamic terrorists, was eventually found and executed in Pakistan (a US ally?!)? What freedom are our young people deployed to those theatres of battle defending? Our freedom to beat up on small countries safely distant from our home shores because those countries share ethnicity with a group of lawless religious sociopaths? Our freedom to go kill Muslims because they pissed us off?
And Korea? Viet Nam? What were our tens of thousands of young people sent to Asia to die in the fifties and sixties defending? Our freedom to name “Communism” the 20th-century bogeyman, and to throw armies of nineteen-year-olds at it wherever it threatened to catch on?
In my heart, I have nothing but respect for the children who have comprised the forces of our military. And nothing but sorrow and regret for their blood poured out on battlefields across the world. Surely, they are paying the price for our freedom. But not in the way the flag-waving, in-your-face armchair patriots believe. They are paying with their lives for our abdication of our personal duty as Americans.
Freedom isn’t easy. It requires pruning and tending. It requires constant review and refinement. It requires searching for and comprehending truth. It requires compassion and empathy. It requires an examination of conscience EVERY DAY—because freedom in the hands of those with suspect moral grounding can be a dangerous, uncontrollable weapon.
But, apparently, the American people have decided that this responsibility—the daily examination, refinement, and gratitude for our freedom—is too much trouble. Instead, they are happy to hand that job over to “leaders” that they only have to think about occasionally. Every two years—or four, or six—the American people line up to hand over their freedom to the Snake Oil Salesman of their choice. They sit in the audience watching hopeful candidates squander obscene amounts of money gambling to appeal to whatever instincts—the baser, the better—will cause the individual members of the faceless mob to place a mark in the desired box, come Election Day.
No…Freedom ISN’T free. There are those who spend a tremendous amount of money getting their hands on our freedom. So that they can invest it where they see fit—usually in some enterprise designed to bring them MORE money. Do you think they care about the human cost, as long as they get what they want?
Freedom isn’t free. But it isn’t paid for by shedding a tear or two once or twice a year, pretending to grieve for the young person who is not YOUR child lying in pieces beside a road in the Middle East. It is paid for with constant vigilance and understanding of the complex issues that threaten or strengthen it. Every single one of us who would exercise this freedom has to put time and effort, thought and work into it, EVERY DAY. If we wimp out and sell that trust into the hands of anyone—ANYONE else—we deserve the consequences. And worse.
It was all put very succinctly in this speech by a fictional president written for a movie script back in 1995.
America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.
You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free.”
(Written by Aaron Sorkin for “The American President”, 1995.)
It’s a stunning commentary on the current state of our nation that no one—right, left, or center—NO ONE in today’s political arena would have the balls to publicly express anything even approaching this sentiment.
Think about it. And ante up. Freedom isn’t free.