Alexandria, VA – It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities
With some 34 years of service with the Navy, another 20 years as an Army brat, and having been to 28 countries during those years, I believe I have developed a keen appreciation for the United States of America.
As a 9-year-old Army brat, I recall standing in front of the Reichstag in what was then East Germany. Looking at the burned-out façade of what was once Germany’s republican representative government seat before the Nazis, I learned that its destruction was caused by a riotous mob ultimately blamed on the leftists, which in turn ushered in the National-Socialist regime of Adolf Hitler.
I vividly remember standing at Checkpoint Charlie, the locale witness to numerous attempts to escape into a free Germany in the West. Living in the Fulda Gap in the mid-1960s brought with it the reality that our fathers were a part of the last bastion of freedom between the West and a trigger-happy Soviet Union Army a mere 20 kilometers distant. Those soviet forces were the enemies of freedom and sent us under our school desks for regular “duck-and-cover” drills. As Army brats, we were good at it.
After Germany, we were transferred to Thailand, where our fathers were supporting struggling governments in Southeast Asia to combat a rising tide of communist elements bent on the destruction of freedom and the subjugation of millions of people. A thing called the Domino Theory had sent us there, an ominous cloud that American politicians railed against.
Coming home in the summer of 1968, after five years overseas, major cities in the country were on fire, the Mall in Washington D.C. was awash with protesters, and “the whole world” watched the Democratic Convention in Chicago. I attended my first football game at Fairfax High School. I remember a huge lump in my throat the first time the FHS Band played the National Anthem. I hadn’t heard it played in three years. I remember thinking it was good to be “home.”
I remember hearing it played in June 2008, at my retirement from the Navy on the Museum Ship BARRY in the Washington Navy Yard. The same lump formed almost 40 years later. This time, however, accompanied by tears.
During those years of service, I was fortunate to witness first-hand what I had learned to be the “blessings of liberty.” I was convinced that we Americans were truly blessed, that we had unlocked liberty’s hidden secret. That we were bestowing those blessings and lessons on others who, because of the twists of fate, the ebb and flow of history, were less fortunate than us.
Coming home from Iraq and shaking the desert from my system, I remembered the few landmarks and antiquities I had been fortunate to see. Iraq’s history exceeded ours by dozens of centuries; those sites and objects were a thing of wonder. The excitement for a historian like me outweighed anything I ever read or saw in a textbook. I was fortunate to see objects and places that accompanied the dawning of history. It sent shivers through me.
But then watching the news of ISIS destroying those places, the joy the militants experienced in obliterating those antiquities—their heritage and culture—cut me to my marrow. How could a people so traditional and conservative attack the very symbols and monuments to their culture and traditions, albeit their long past? How could this happen?
Irina Bokova, then Director-General of UNESCO, said, “This attack is far more than a cultural tragedy — this is also a security issue as it fuels sectarianism, violent extremism, and conflict in Iraq.” The justification for the smashing of antiquities was that these objects and historic sites were called “idols” and “heretic” by the Islamic State. That shocked and appalled me then and it does to this day.
This past year is one for the books. As we welcomed a new year in January, we all exhaled a collective breath with an equally collective “Thank God 2020 is over” on our tongues.
But January brought neither peace nor respite from the rising tide of discontent.
I watched as militants invaded the Capitol building and occupied it. They desecrated “idols” in Statuary Hall. They smashed desks, historical exhibits, and other relics of the champions of liberty who occupied those places and secured the liberties we enjoy today.
They ran through the halls of Congress – Congress – the very body that organized and fomented the American Revolution, wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights – the very documents that let them hold their rallies. It is truly ironic that this rabble attacked the singular institution that guaranteed them those rights in the first place and continues to work for their rights to this day.
For me, that horrible day in January was a shock and supreme heartbreak. But the main lesson of this American Guernica is that out of all the carnage of that day, a bright light shone. Congressional Staff rose to the occasion. Despite chaos and threats all around them, a few dedicated government employees gathered the Electoral College ballot boxes containing the final election results and ushered them to safety.
I realized that day that more than a flag, an eagle, or even an anthem, those ballots were the very definition of our democracy itself. And it was those people, that day, under those chaotic and dangerous conditions, who displayed the same moral and physical courage as any of our founding fathers. That day, those people were the true patriots.
The lump in my throat came back. And the tears welled in my eyes one more time.