In the flurry of excitement and emotion on this historic day, I did something I haven’t done in years. I searched around the house to see if I had an American flag to hang out. I didn’t find one and that shocked me. As the daughter of a man who was a West Point graduate, a career military officer and a decorated veteran of two wars, I grew up in a house that always had an American flag. Even shortly before his death from cancer, when he was too weak to do much, my father still went out on every clear, cold Maine morning to raise the flag. Then made sure, with military precision, to lower it before sundown. A flag means a lot more to you when you’ve served it for most of your adult life, even to the point of risking your life for it.
When I left home, I always had an American flag around somewhere. It was usually packed away in a drawer, but I often managed to get it out on Veterans Day or the Fourth of July. Somewhere along the line, I stopped doing that, maybe about the time I married a Brit. But on Veterans Day or the Fourth, I would always think that I should be putting up the flag.
Then eight years ago, I started actually being embarrassed to have a flag or even think about putting it out. I attended a number of reunions and events at West Point where we were given flag pins. I ended up sticking them in a jewelry box. Way in the back. With no intention of actually wearing them. I hadn’t grown ashamed of the flag or even of my country. But I became profoundly uncomfortable with what flying the flag, wearing flag pins and even singing the National Anthem out loud had come to mean.
At some point in the last eight years, the people who flew the flag most vigorously, who wore their flag pins most ostentatiously and who bellowed out the national anthem the loudest, started to be the people with the least understanding of what these things mean. They were five time draft dodgers like Cheney who had no compunction about sending other people’s kids to the kind of wars he has said he didn’t fight because, he “had better things to do.” They were smirky overpriveledged frat boys like Bush, Jr. who had Daddy pull strings to get him out of Viet Nam, but then couldn’t put in the time for the alternative, but still valuable, National Guard duty he should have performed. In fact, it was alarming how many people in the Bush Administration opted out of serving their country in war, but were perfectly happy to send other people’s children, not for the defense of the country but to further a cynical political agenda and line their own pockets. The final insult to injury, this was an administration, more than perhaps any other in history, that systematically gutted the Veterans Administration, the benefits and the support for the troops they were all screaming that we should support. (A West Point widow that I know is actively involved in support programs for the active and hospitalized troops. Any one of her stories would make you fall down and weep.)
But my new President’s inspirational speech (full draft here) makes me want to put out that flag again. Besides his strong repudiation of everything the Bush administration has done and his reaffirmation of what America should stand for, he articulated something few leaders have done in decades. He told us that we all have duties and responsibilities of citizenship. And suddenly it seems as if we aren’t going to have a country where only a few give the ultimate service while the rest of us are just asked to shop. Michelle Obama’s attention to military families says to me that those who do serve on the front lines won’t be abandoned once they are disabled or no longer needed.
But most of all, I was touched by those thousands of people — all colors, all ages, new Americans and those who were born here — who were waving American flags as if suddenly America was back in their hands. And I think it is.
Yes, my British husband will be annoyed. But I’m getting a flag and I’ll be flying it.
On a Humorous Note:
Mall photo from the Financial Times Online