Thinking about real patriotism

Interstate 68 is called the National Pike, 100 miles of road that winds through the mountains from Hancock, Maryland, to Morgantown, West Virginia.

It’s a beautiful stretch of highway, providing scenic views of the Cumberland Mountains and, for the most part, it’s wide open and empty. The big trucks that clog so many interstate highways opt for I-70, aka the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

With the cruise control set at 70 and vintage folk music on the satellite radio system, I had plenty of time to enjoy the nearly empty road and think.

Most people are always in a rush to get from point A to B. I’m not. I’d rather drive than fly and usually look for alternative routes. We’ve put more than 37,000 miles on a Jeep Liberty in two years and another 25,000 on a Wrangler.

On the radio, the late Phil Ochs sang “I Ain’t a-Marching Anymore,” a stinging antiwar song. Ochs also wrote the bitingly funny “Draft Dodger Rag” and a slew of other memorable folk songs before taking his own life after a long battle with depression.

I had to smile as the Liberty swept past an RV creeping up Polish Mountain. The tire cover on the back of a Geo Tracker towed by the RV said “Please be patient. I’m pushing him as fast as I can.” A peace sign adorned the RV as well, adding to the nostalgia of war-protesting folk music on the radio.

Ochs sang about the futility of Vietnam, along with many other popular folk singers of the day – Joan Baez, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. Now, nearly 30 years after the Vietnam war ended with a frantic helicopter evacuation of Saigon, America is again embroiled in a bitter national debate on war and an increasing number of young men and women coming home in body bags.

The Liberty cruised by a pickup truck with West Virginia plates. Another bumper sticker blast from the past – “America, Love It Or Leave It.” Three decades ago, those who supported the war in Vietnam claimed antiwar protestors gave aid and comfort to the enemy. Those who support the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq now say the same thing about those who criticize his war.

Lyndon B. Johnson used a highly fictionalized attack against American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify escalating American involvement in Vietnam. George W. Bush used highly fictionalized claims about weapons of mass destruction to justify invading Iraq. History has not been kind to Johnson. It remains to be seen if Bush will suffer the same fate.

Of all the parallels people have drawn between Vietnam and Iraq, none is more disturbing than the rift both wars caused in this country. Sadly, too many Americans forget protestors who fought and died for the right to questions the actions of their government founded this country.

You have to wonder what those founding fathers would think of today’s bitterly partisan, highly polarized debates over the Iraq war. Those who donned Indian costumes and dumped English tea into the Boston Harbor protested what they saw as oppression of their government. To some, they were freedom fighters: to others, terrorists.

The popular Thanksgiving myth has settlers sharing a bountiful dinner with the Indians who lived in the new world. It would not be long before we, the invaders, pushed the Indians off their land and claimed it as our own. The native Americans were not left with much to be thankful for and our treatment of them remains a dark stain on American history.

Some claim the times require a different approach, that America is fighting terrorism. America has been fighting terrorists for 200 years. Before 9-11, the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil came at the hands of a local – Timothy McVeigh. The terrorists who donned white sheets to murder blacks called themselves Americans. So do the white supremacy groups who litter the northwest.

America is diverse country populated by many peoples, cultures, opinions and philosophies. But not one of these groups have an exclusive on Americanism, patriotism or any of the other various “isms” that people too often use to stereotype others.

It takes more than waving or a flag or uttering the latest cliché to be an American. It takes a real love of country, a love that transcends political partisanship or a lockstep belief that a government must be supported even when it may be wrong.

Patriotism is more than standing up with the crowd. Sometimes, it means standing up against the crowd. Had our founding fathers accepted the actions of their government without question, we would be singing “God Save the Queen,” not the “Star Spangled Banner.”