Historian Howard Zinn, writing recently in The Progressive, said that this past Independence Day, Americans
"...would have done well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed."
His column was an argument against the basic idea that we should consider ourselves Americans, and instead advocated an "allegiance to the human race," as if the two were somehow incompatible.
He described our soldiers in Iraq as "victims...of our government's lies" and claimed that Americans suffer from "a loss of a sense of proportion." To support this claim, he said nationalist thinking had led us to such actions as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in response to Pearl Harbor, and the killing of tens of thousands in the Global War on Terror in response to the deaths of 3,000 Americans in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a clear indication of our "loss of a sense of proportion." The implication, of course, is that we should have been much more restrained after being attacked by a ruthless enemy, in 1941 and again in 2001.
With all due respect to Prof. Zinn's opinion, I must disagree. I take great pride not in the fact that I am a soldier, but in the fact that I am an American soldier. I am as capable at helping others as I am at hurting them, and I take far more pleasure in the former than I do in the latter. I am immensely proud and humbled to have the honor of representing my nation, as a member of the armed forces, in bringing relief to those who need it, and justice to those who deserve it.
I, and I believe most Americans, love all the symbols of our greatness: our flag, our anthem, our history, and our culture. I have sworn my life to defending the principles upon which this country was founded, and I do believe with all my heart that our nation is special and unique.
I teach my children to respect our flag and our country, and to be thankful for the blessings we enjoy. I get choked up at the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" and at the passing of Old Glory, and I and my children stand and give proper honors when either occurs. That may make me a nationalist in Mr. Zinn's eyes, but it doesn't make me any less a member of the human race.
And what about that greatest symbol of America, our national colors, that Prof. Zinn would have us put away? Our flag stands for what this nation is: a beacon of hope to the rest of the world, a place where freedom and prosperity are available to all who come here peaceably and are willing to work for it. It represents the values and beliefs that our soldiers are dying for, because they know America is worth preserving. It represents that magical place where people from around the world still long to be, and it stands for justice and equality, the inherent human rights that are sadly lacking in many places around the world.
Do we sometimes make mistakes in dealing with other nations? Yes, of course, but this nation represents a land where good triumphs more often than not, and that is why the rest of the world continues to look to us for guidance and hope. And it is why our enemies seek to destroy us and everything that we represent.
I have been around the world and seen the joy in people's eyes when American help has arrived, and I have felt pride and thankfulness for being part of such a wonderful nation, knowing that few other countries could provide the hope and promise that we do. And I have seen the utter fear in those who know that we have come to right the wrongs on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves against tyranny and oppression. A former commanding officer of mine summed it up beautifully when he said, "When we deploy our forces, one of two things happens: people either say ‘Thank God, they're coming, or they say, ‘Oh shit, they're coming.'" Both speak to the greatness of this nation.
The flag, and all our symbols of national pride, mean something because they represent all that is good and right about America, and all that can be good and right in the world. They serve as an inspiration and source of pride not only to most Americans, but also to everyone who wants to be an American or wants their nation to be more like ours.
No, the time has not come to renounce nationalism and symbols of national pride. Instead, now, more than ever, it is time to stand up and be counted. Because now is a time of great peril for our nation, when radical enemies seek to destroy everything we stand for and everything we believe in. And it will take proud Americans, and not proud humans, to ensure that our country and our way of life continue, for us, and for the rest of the world.
Greg Reeson is a Major in the United States Army, and has served two tours of duty in Iraq. His views are his own. He does not speak for the US Army or the Department of Defense.