My conflicted feelings about the Fourth of July were a long time in the making. In the eighth grade, I won a citywide speech contest, delivering remarks on patriotism to an audience that included my very proud parents. I rose through the ranks of the Boy Scouts, pledged the flag, and, like the rest of my generation, hid under my desk during drills designed to prepare us for the possibility of an enemy air raid.
My hometown was close to an Air Force base, so seeing fighter jets flying overhead in formation was a common experience – though not so common that I didn’t look up in awe whenever they passed. And I went to the fireworks displays that were a part of the annual Fourth celebrations and cheered in delight as they exploded overhead.
In my middle teens, my mother shared with me a box of letters she had received from two of my uncles – both infantrymen who served in the Second World War’s European theatre. In them, they recounted their experiences in the famed Battle of the Bulge, crossing into Germany, and then entering concentration camps at the war’s end. I devoured their correspondence, marvelled at their heroism, grieved for their lost comrades, and felt a profound respect for their sacrifice and sense of purpose. These were experiences that shaped my early years.
Those youthful feelings of patriotic pride, however, gave way to vastly different feelings in the mid-1960s as Americans were forced to wrestle with the legacy of our original sins against black Americans and native Americans, and then were challenged in a different way by the Vietnam War.
I opposed that war and watched too many of my generation drafted and sent abroad to fight, lose their lives, or be physically or psychologically maimed in a conflict that we never should have entered and served no legitimate purpose. What was most disturbing was the way that themes that had evolved from America's history of warfare – the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the two World Wars – were recycled to generate patriotic fervour for this war. They falsely claimed that the youngsters sent off to die were “sacrificing their lives for our freedom", “fighting tyranny", or “fighting the enemy there, so we wouldn’t have to fight them here".
The war ended with 55,000 Americans and possibly 1 million Vietnamese dead. Another casualty was the naive patriotism of my youth.
It was deeply disturbing that the same cynical exploitation of patriotism accompanied the Iraq war. At that time, I was teaching in North Carolina, living near a military base that sent many young men and women to Iraq. It was painful to listen to the local evening news as tearful mothers and spouses consoled themselves repeating the now shop-worn lines that their loved ones were going to Iraq to keep America free. I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate the Fourth that year.
One of my most troubling memories that changed my attitude toward the Fourth of July occurred in 1983. That year, my wife and I were hosting a 12-year-old Lebanese girl, Fayzeh. She had been a victim of Israel’s bombing of West Beirut during which a cluster bomb had shattered one of her legs.
On the Fourth of July, as was our practice, we took our family to see the fireworks. As the first fireworks exploded overhead, I will never forget how Fayzeh reacted. She was terrified and began to shake and cry. To us, the explosive sound of the fireworks lighting up the sky had been a wonder and a joy, but to her it was a traumatic reminder of the nightly savage bombardments of her city.
Realising our grievous error, my wife and I quickly got the children together and left. Since then, I’ve never felt the same about fireworks. And even when I see them at a distance, I think of Fayzeh and all the other children living in fear of bombs whether in Ukraine, Syria, Israel, or Gaza.
This year’s Fourth had an added trauma as we learned of yet another mass shooting – this one at a celebratory parade in Highland Park, Illinois — leaving seven dead and dozens wounded. I had been invited to go the White House to witness the fireworks display from the South Lawn. I hadn’t been enthusiastic about attending and after the massacre in Illinois, I was even less inclined. But as the day wore on, I decided to do what I hadn’t done in years. I went. And I’m glad I did.
As I walked around the White House lawn, looking not so much at the explosions in the air (because I still don’t think bombs are fun) but at the faces of the families that had gathered, a different feeling came over me. I saw men, women and children of every race and creed. Some wore red, white and blue, while others were decked out in their ethnic garb. As I passed, I could hear different languages spoken. They were Americans gathered at their White House, as other Americans were gathering at similar events in their parks or schools in thousands of cities and towns across this country. And they had come together to celebrate, not bombs or wars, but the freedom, opportunity and acceptance they or their ancestors had come to this country to find. As I walked and watched, I felt good about my country.
Especially now, as our freedoms, opportunity and acceptance of diversity are threatened – not by a foreign foe, but by violent fanaticism, greed and intolerance – we need to celebrate America's diversity and the aspirational values that brought us here and continue to move us forward. We need this kind of patriotism if we are to continue to flourish and become “the land of the free and the home of the brave".