The time was July 31, 1943. The place was New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. The United States was at war with Japan. The platoon of Private Rodger W. Young of the 148th Infantry, 37th Infantry Division, was being raked by machinegun fire from a Japanese pillbox. Wounded at the outset, Private Young crawled toward the machinegun, which continued to fire. He was hit again. But Private Rodger Young kept crawling, returning fire with his rifle. When he got close enough, he threw hand grenades into the pillbox. There were explosions and the pillbox was destroyed. But Private Rodger Young had been wounded a third time and was killed.
Forty-six years later, in a Southern California classroom, twenty-eight high school seniors did not bother to stand for the flag salute or recite the Pledge of Allegiance during the homeroom break. They were completely uninterested. I was their substitute teacher that day. It was a senior “Civics” class.
“Why didn’t you stand for the flag?” I asked them.
They looked bewildered. One boy tried to make a joke. “It’s stupid to salute the flag,” said another. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“The flag symbolizes our country,” I said. “The Pledge of Allegiance is an affirmation of our shared ideals.”
“Our country sucks,” said one girl.
“My mom says she’ll drive me to Canada if there’s another war,” explained a boy in the first row.
“Patriotism is about war, and war is stupid,” said another.
“Is that how you feel?” I asked.
Most students nodded their heads or otherwise signaled their agreement.
Sadly, this school was a miserable failure. The administrators were nice enough people, but even so, there was something despicable in what they had accomplished. Here was an American school that taught its students what was wrong with America, forgetting to mention what was right. It hadn’t taught these young Americans to appreciate their country. Worse yet, this school did not honor the patriots of the past. These students hadn’t read of heroic sacrifices by men like Private Rodger Young, sacrifices that made our country free, great, and prosperous. For these unfortunate young people, the main American hero was Martin Luther King. And what he symbolized for them, more than anything, was a legacy of racism, a legacy of past injustices.
That is the hero-emphasis American education had shifted toward by 1989. In mentioning this I do not disparage Martin Luther King. I am merely pointing out what a subtle shift in emphasis can accomplish. Here, in 1989, was a class of high school seniors, near to graduating, who did not appreciate their country, but who knew all about its failings.
“What if we were bombed and invaded?” I asked the class. “Would the flag salute be stupid then? Would you still run to Canada?”
Two of the louder boys joked that they would run to Canada all the faster.
“Then who would protect the girls here? Who would protect them from enemy soldiers?”
It was an amazing transformation. The girls turned to the boys and said, “Yeah, what about us?” A lively discussion followed, and everyone participated. Many ideas and insights were touched upon. Discoveries were made. For the rest of the week, those young people stood for the flag salute. They realized that our flag not only symbolized the defense of noble ideals, but the defense of flesh-and-blood people — friends, family, and fellow Americans.
Private Rodger Young died for his comrades under fire. He died for his friends and family back home. He died for those students, attending school four decades later. No doubt he stood for the flag salute many times, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance; so he knew what ideals he was fighting for: 1) one nation, undivided; 2) under God; 3) with liberty and justice for all.
Since Lexington and Concord we have fought at least nine wars against foreign powers. In those wars, nearly two million Americans — like Rodger Young — made the ultimate sacrifice. It must be understood, and it should be taught in all the classrooms of America, that without our fallen heroes we would have no country, no freedom, and no foundation for prosperity.
Many of us oppose the current military action against Yugoslavia. Unlike American military actions undertaken in the past, this war involves no vital American interest. All the same, if the conflict widens, those Americans who die in Yugoslavia or are still heroes. They are heroes because they have dedicated themselves to our defense and well-being. They are heroes because they are risking their lives in deadly conflict — in the hope that our victory will be used to uphold what is right. Therefore, woe to the statesman who spends their lives unwisely, or to the general whose strategy is inappropriate. The blood of our servicemen is precious. American soldiers should not be asked to die unless it is against a genuine enemy, in a conflict that makes a difference for the world and our posterity.
It has been the virtue of our republic, that we have chosen to uphold liberty and oppose tyranny. In the American Revolution and the War of 1812 we opposed British imperialism. Many forget that the generals we defeated in the Mexican War were the oppressors and not the liberators of the Southwest. In the Spanish American War we fought for Cuban freedom. In World War I we tipped the balance in favor of the Western democracies. In World War II we put an end to Hitler and the Japanese Empire. And then, throughout the Cold War, in Korea and Vietnam, we opposed Marxism-Leninism — an ideology soaked in the blood of untold millions.
We need to consider, in each of these wars, what the victory of the other side would have meant.
We need to consider what an unchecked British tyranny would have meant for the people of this continent. We ought to imagine, as well, what California and Texas would have been like under 151 years of Mexican misgovernment. We should consider the fate of Cuba and the Philippines under Spain, Western Europe under the Kaiser or Hitler, and Asia under the cruel imperialism of the Japanese. We ought to compare the prosperity of the South Korean people with the starving millions trapped under the Communist dictatorship of North Korea. And then, finally, we need to admit that a tremendous massacre of innocents took place in Southeast Asia as a consequence of our withdrawal from Vietnam.
America is not perfect. No country is. But America’s victories have brought freedom to millions around the world. We have prevented massacres. We have defended many countries against aggression. Therefore, those who condemn so-called “American imperialism” are mistaken. Do not listen to them. There has always been a world of difference between ourselves and our enemies. That world of difference needs to be understood, and those who have fallen for that difference need to be appreciated all the more.
Because we are citizens of a republic, we may disagree with the decisions of presidents or the declarations of Congress. We may question the rightness of a specific military action. But in the end, we are a country. That means we pull together, we support our own people. Our nation extends not only over the territory of the USA, but backwards and forward in time. Edmund Burke said that those who forget their ancestors will not think of their posterity. In the same vein, those who do not remember the fallen heroes of yesterday may not find heroes — like Rodger W. Young — for tomorrow.