When the Troops Are Back and the Cheering Stops, How Will Americans Define Patriotism? WAR IN THE GULF


By the time Thomas Jefferson was in his 80s, his namesakes were scattered across the new United States. The young men's parents often wrote to him, asking advice for their sons. Jefferson, who left behind some 18,000 letters, responded seriously. There were a few sentences he offered over and over -- wise and concise enough to be repeated as long as young people ask how to be good Americans.

Adore God," he wrote. "Reverence and cherish your parents. Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than life. .."


We have been celebrating and redefining patriotism every day since Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, especially before and after every war. We seldom agree about it; this time, we -- most of us -- are delighted to contrast our national self-image after the short and glorious Persian Gulf war with how we felt after the only previous war remembered by the majority of our population.

Twenty years ago, jukeboxes in cinder-block roadhouses across the Sun Belt played and replayed Merle Haggard's proud redneck repertoire of "Okie From Muskogee" and its like. His ballads drew the line clearly: "When you runnin' down our country, hoss, you're walking on the fightin' side of me." A person's reaction to those words was as quick a test as we had then of where anyone stood on Vietnam, on Lyndon Johnson, Dick Nixon, on the flag itself.

A flag in a lapel in those days was a political statement. Soldiers coming home from the war were shamed out of wearing their uniforms, and their bitterness about that lasts to this day. They had fought long and thousands had died because their country asked, and then their country resented what they had done. Americans whose memory ran back to World War II longed for the certainty, the unity, the simplicity, of the 44 months between Pearl Harbor and V-J Day.

And now, suddenly, after a few weeks of modern war, we are up there again. For every U.S. battle death in this war, more than 3,000 of those sad telegrams were sent to American families in World War II. For every American in service today, there were about six then -- and there were only about half as many of us. Demographically, we were all in it then -- millionaire's sons, as well as boys just out of CCC camps, Ivy League graduates, as well as grammar school dropouts. It was a truly national effort, a truly world war, fought across whole continents and oceans, against armies and navies mightier, dictators crueler than anything imagined in today's Middle East.

Saying so is not to minimize the brilliance of our strategists or the bravery of our troops in the gulf war. It is to put this war in perspective, and to marvel that, to rejoice in the fact that for this moment, success on such a smaller field has lifted us together again.

This is not even an election year, yet there are flags everywhere -- in Kuwait, where grateful non-Americans crowd in front of the camera to chant "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" And flying from millions of porches here at home. Soldiers are returning proud of their uniforms. At Dallas-Fort Worth airport the other day, 16 servicemen on their way back to their base in Louisiana were surprised by a cluster of cheering admirers. Passersby stopped to shake their hands and congratulate them. In Tampa, a judge ruled that a murder defendant could not wear his Army uniform in the courtroom because it might unfairly prejudice the jury in his favor.

In Fort Myers the 33rd annual Lions Club Shrimp Festival started with a parade of Madonna look-alikes, and Shriners in costume saying to the crowd, "We're the good Arabs!" But what capped the festival, even outdoing Miss Dental Health and Miss Key West Connection, was a 40-foot Old Glory carried past the cheering throng by ROTC cadets. Nymphets in bikinis are more than a world away from the uniformed women who flew helicopters, loaded rockets, and even died in the past few months. No one need ever doubt again whether American women can do their part in war. Yet those teen-agers in their innocence are just as much a part of what we celebrate on this national high. Simple good and evil, clearly drawn heroes and villains, unquestioned victory and celebration are things most Americans have never experienced before as a nation. It feels good, but experience says it will not last. Once the troops are back and the cheering stops, our differing versions of patriotism emerge again. Having a common enemy abroad unites us, defeating him elates us: If only we could freeze this moment -- but that would mean standing still. If only we could seize it, then, and in this renewed spirit of America's greatness, make it work at home as well as it has in the battlefield.

All of us are, in a sense, Jefferson's namesakes. We can subscribe, in some way, to his advice: "Love your neighbor as yourself and your country more than life."

One of the most affecting photographs out of this war was of a U.S. medic taking tender care of a wounded Iraqi soldier. Our president recalled last week the film of Iraqis emerging from their bunker, hands up, fearing death -- and the American soldier who told them, "It's OK. You're all right now. You're all right now."

The president followed with just the right words: "That scene says a lot about Americans, a lot about who we are. Americans are a caring people. We are a good people, a generous people. Let us always be caring and good and generous in all we do."

We want to believe that about ourselves. If asked, we would say yes, our caring applies to our own countrymen as well as defeated enemies. We might agree that Jefferson's urging love of neighbor and love of country in the same sentence meant something -- perhaps, indeed, that they mean the same thing. If from our current high, we looked inward and determined to make that so, this war would have accomplished much more than any general could plot on a map. But what a memorable moment will be wasted if, six months from now, the homecomings are over, the flags are folded, and somebody looks back and wonders:

"Is that all there is?"

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