I recently spent some time in our nation’s capital. A not-so-insignificant amount of that time was spent walking behind a middle-aged man on the National Mall. As we both took in the awesome views of the taxpayer-funded monuments and memorials, he with his family and I with mine, he kept up an incessant monologue about the need to, among other things, harm the President, his family, and many other Democratic members of Congress. On his back, he wore an olive-drab green shirt with the words “Land Of The Free, Because Of The Brave” stenciled on.
I’m not sure if this man ever served in uniform. Maybe he did; maybe he has relatives who did. All that is irrelevant to this fundamental point:
Military service – whether your own or that of others – is not a Get-Out-Of-Citizenship-Free Card. Military service is not a pawn in your desultory game of exclusionary-politics-as-everything. Military service does not validate – nor does it excuse – purposeful malice.
At its most elemental level, service is about caring for others before yourself. That many of us did this on a field of battle, on a ship at sea, or on an aircraft high above the earth’s service for a period of time does not absolve us of the call to serve after we hang up the uniform. If anything, post-service life calls us to be positive examples for selfless service in every facet of American life in every village, town, and city in our country.
To be clear, civic virtue is not the absence of political disagreement. Rather, it is in taking the time to respect people who are different than us and think different than us…and finding a way to co-exist and work towards that “more perfect Union” our founders wrote of so many years ago.
But civic virtue is under large-scale attack every day. Large swaths of our country are stuck in echo chambers charged by feedback loops of negativity, “othering,” and thinly-veiled calls for harm against an expertly-curated “them.” Our fellow Americans are seen as less-than-full-citizens if they choose to be their full and authentic selves in public and threatened with vigilante violence. We treat government like a reality show to be watched from the outside rather than a deliberate act that we all must participate in.
If we are to continue to be the “Land Of The Free,” we cannot simply rely on those who volunteer to put on a uniform and serve in the military. We must expand the membership of “The Brave” to include all those who choose to come together and reject these attacks on civic virtue. We cannot wear the t-shirt if we aren’t still actively engaged in the campaign for selfless, humble, inclusive service to our fellow citizens and the country we come together to form. Citizenship is a choice; it does not end once military service has ended, or because someone else served for us.
Some may choose to serve as a sailor, soldier, airman, guardian, coast guardsman, or Marine, but all can choose to be an active, positive citizen of the United States. As we approach Memorial Day 2023, choose to serve.