This week, heretofore nearly anonymous hammer thrower Gwen Berry made international headlines when, during the podium ceremony for winning bronze in an Olympic trial, she turned away from the United States flag as the national anthem played. The anthem wasn’t played for her, or for the other competitors in the hammer throw; every day during the trials, a pre-scheduled anthem went out over the sound system.
Berry turned 90 degrees from the flag, stood with her hand on her hip, and glared directly into the camera. It was a deliberate provocation and a deliberate attempt to raise her own profile. “I feel like it was a setup,” she later complained, “and they did it on purpose.”
Actually, Berry just saw an opportunity to maximize her profile, and she seized it with alacrity. In the United States, there’s far more money to be made and fame to be achieved by spurning the American flag and the national anthem than by embracing it: Colin Kaepernick makes millions because he failed as a quarterback but succeeded as a self-aggrandizing symbol of supposed racial bravery. Meanwhile, the thousands of athletes with track records superior to either Kaepernick’s or Berry’s who stand for the national anthem remain anonymous.
That’s because America currently rewards an entitled sense of grievance. Most Americans know little about foreign countries; they somehow believe that the United States is inferior, or that the prosperity, health and free lifestyle to which they have become accustomed is the global and historic norm.
It most assuredly is not.
While Berry was protesting the national anthem, the Chinese government was busy arresting the editor of the pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily. That arrest came on the heels of the arrest of one of Apple Daily’s columnists for “conspiring to collude with foreign countries or foreign forces to endanger national security.” While Berry was protesting the national anthem, the Taliban was busy spreading like a metastasizing cancer over Afghanistan, preparing its new subjects for the tender mercies of brutal Islamist rule. While Berry was protesting the national anthem during an event at which she threw heavy objects for sport, billions of people were living in absolute privation the world over.
None of this means that the shortcomings of America should be ignored. But to protest the flag or the national anthem as particular symbols of grievance is to demonstrate full-scale your own ignorance and ingratitude. “I’m here to represent those who died due to systemic racism,” Berry said. But she herself is an excellent indicator of just how much promise America holds for its citizens. She grew up in the home of her grandmother, with 13 people in the house; she had a baby out of wedlock at 15 and then earned a college scholarship. She got two jobs and helped support her extended family. Now, she’s going to the Olympics. And presumably, there, she will turn her back on the flag and the national anthem if she makes it to the podium.
In doing so, she’ll become a hero to millions. She’ll get richer; she’ll get more famous. Perhaps, like pseudo-Marxist Patrisse Cullors of Black Lives Matter, she’ll buy herself a few houses; maybe, like Kaepernick, she’ll make the cover of Sports Illustrated. Like self-declared Marxist Cullors, who currently owns three separate houses worth over $1.5 million each, Berry is in it for the attention and the profit. Yesterday, nobody had heard of her. Today, everybody has. It’s that simple.
One thing is certain, however: Those who spend their days championing their own ingratitude at a society that gives them extraordinary opportunities — opportunities unavailable to nearly all humans for nearly all of human history, and unavailable to most people on the planet right now — aren’t likely to live happier lives. And they’re unlikely to make their nations better, either.
I leaned against an oak at the side of the road, wishing I were invisible, keeping my distance from my parents on their lawn chairs and my younger siblings scampering about.
I hoped none of my friends saw me there. God forbid they caught me waving one of the small American flags Mom bought at Ben Franklin for a dime. At 16, I was too old and definitely too cool for our small town’s Memorial Day parade.
I ought to be at the lake, I brooded. But, no, the all-day festivities were mandatory in my family.
A high school band marched by, the girl in sequins missing her baton as it tumbled from the sky. Firemen blasted sirens in their polished red trucks. The uniforms on the troop of World War II veterans looked too snug on more than one member.
“Here comes Mema,” my father shouted.
Five black convertibles lumbered down the boulevard. The mayor was in the first, handing out programs. I didn’t need to look at one. I knew my uncle Bud’s name was printed on it, as it had been every year since he was killed in Italy. Our family’s war hero.
And I knew that perched on the backseat of one of the cars, waving and smiling, was Mema, my grandmother. She had a corsage on her lapel and a sign in gold embossed letters on the car door: “Gold Star Mother.”
I hid behind the tree so I wouldn’t have to meet her gaze. It wasn’t because I didn’t love her or appreciate her. She’d taught me how to sew, to call a strike in baseball. She made great cinnamon rolls, which we always ate after the parade.
What embarrassed me was all the attention she got for a son who had died 20 years earlier. With four other children and a dozen grandchildren, why linger over this one long-ago loss?
I peeked out from behind the oak just in time to see Mema wave and blow my family a kiss as the motorcade moved on. The purple ribbon on her hat fluttered in the breeze.
The rest of our Memorial Day ritual was equally scripted. No use trying to get out of it. I followed my family back to Mema’s house, where there was the usual baseball game in the backyard and the same old reminiscing about Uncle Bud in the kitchen.
Helping myself to a cinnamon roll, I retreated to the living room and plopped down on an armchair.
There I found myself staring at the Army photo of Bud on the bookcase. The uncle I’d never known. I must have looked at him a thousand times—so proud in his crested cap and knotted tie. His uniform was decorated with military emblems that I could never decode.
Funny, he was starting to look younger to me as I got older. Who were you, Uncle Bud? I nearly asked aloud.
I picked up the photo and turned it over. Yellowing tape held a prayer card that read: “Lloyd ‘Bud’ Heitzman, 1925-1944. A Great Hero.” Nineteen years old when he died, not much older than I was. But a great hero? How could you be a hero at 19?
The floorboards creaked behind me. I turned to see Mema coming in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.
I almost hid the photo because I didn’t want to listen to the same stories I’d heard year after year: “Your uncle Bud had this little rat-terrier named Jiggs. Good old Jiggs. How he loved that mutt! He wouldn’t go anywhere without Jiggs. He used to put him in the rumble seat of his Chevy coupe and drive all over town.
“Remember how hard Bud worked after we lost the farm? At haying season he worked all day, sunrise to sunset, baling for other farmers. Then he brought me all his wages. He’d say, ‘Mama, someday I’m going to buy you a brand-new farm. I promise.’ There wasn’t a better boy in the world!”
Sometimes I wondered about that boy dying alone in a muddy ditch in a foreign country he’d only read about. I thought of the scared kid who jumped out of a foxhole in front of an advancing enemy, only to be downed by a sniper. I couldn’t reconcile the image of the boy and his dog with that of the stalwart soldier.
Mema stood beside me for a while, looking at the photo. From outside came the sharp snap of an American flag flapping in the breeze and the voices of my cousins cheering my brother at bat.
“Mema,” I asked, “what’s a hero?” Without a word she turned and walked down the hall to the back bedroom. I followed.
She opened a bureau drawer and took out a small metal box, then sank down onto the bed.
“These are Bud’s things,” she said. “They sent them to us after he died.” She opened the lid and handed me a telegram dated October 13, 1944. “The Secretary of State regrets to inform you that your son, Lloyd Heitzman, was killed in Italy.”
Your son! I imagined Mema reading that sentence for the first time. I didn’t know what I would have done if I’d gotten a telegram like that.
“Here’s Bud’s wallet,” she continued. Even after all those years, it was caked with dried mud. Inside was Bud’s driver’s license with the date of his sixteenth birthday. I compared it with the driver’s license I had just received.
A photo of Bud holding a little spotted dog fell out of the wallet. Jiggs. Bud looked so pleased with his mutt.
There were other photos in the wallet: a laughing Bud standing arm in arm with two buddies, photos of my mom and aunt and uncle, another of Mema waving. This was the home Uncle Bud took with him, I thought.
I could see him in a foxhole, taking out these snapshots to remind himself of how much he was loved and missed.
“Who’s this?” I asked, pointing to a shot of a pretty dark-haired girl.
“Marie. Bud dated her in high school. He wanted to marry her when he came home.” A girlfriend? Marriage? How heartbreaking to have a life, plans and hopes for the future, so brutally snuffed out.
Sitting on the bed, Mema and I sifted through the treasures in the box: a gold watch that had never been wound again. A sympathy letter from President Roosevelt, and one from Bud’s commander. A medal shaped like a heart, trimmed with a purple ribbon. And at the very bottom, the deed to Mema’s house.
“Why’s this here?” I asked.
“Because Bud bought this house for me.” She explained how after his death, the U.S. government gave her 10 thousand dollars, and with it she built the house she was still living in.
“He kept his promise all right,” Mema said in a quiet voice I’d never heard before.
For a long while the two of us sat there on the bed. Then we put the wallet, the medal, the letters, the watch, the photos and the deed back into the metal box. I finally understood why it was so important for Mema—and me—to remember Uncle Bud on this day.
If he’d lived longer he might have built that house for Mema or married his high-school girlfriend. There might have been children and grandchildren to remember him by.
As it was, there was only that box, the name in the program and the reminiscing around the kitchen table.
“I guess he was a hero because he gave everything for what he believed,” I said carefully.
“Yes, child,” Mema replied, wiping a tear with the back of her hand. “Don’t ever forget that.”
I haven’t. Even today with Mema gone, my husband and I take our lawn chairs to the tree-shaded boulevard on Memorial Day and give our three daughters small American flags that I buy for a quarter at Ben Franklin.
I want them to remember that life isn’t just about getting what you want. Sometimes it involves giving up the things you love for what you love even more. That many men and women did the same for their country—that’s what I think when I see the parade pass by now.
And if I close my eyes and imagine, I can still see Mema in her regal purple hat, honoring her son, a true American hero.
Are they fomenting revolution?
There have recently been calls from retired senior officers for active commanders to disobey a presidential order to use federal troops to assist local law enforcement in establishing law and order in some of America’s cities should such an order be given.
The first such call came from James Mattis, Trump’s one time Secretary of Defense, who is also a retired Marine Corps General. He was followed by retired General John Kelly, former Trump Chief of Staff, and Admiral Michael Mullen, Obama Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and several others.
The Hoover Institute’s Victor Davis Hanson wrote a detailed critique of the remarks of several of the most prominent retired senior officers for the National Review (June 2020) which began with this statement:
“In a time of crisis, their synchronized chorus of complaints, falsehoods, and partisan appeals to resistance threaten the very constitutional order they claim to revere.” (ibid)
The first point Hanson makes is that these outbursts violate the Universal Code of Military Justice, “Article 88 of the UCMJ makes it a crime to voice ‘contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State.” (ibid)
Penalties are spelled out in AR 27-10 of the code: “Retired members of a regular component of the Armed Forces who are entitled to pay are subject to the UCMJ (See Art. 2(a) (4), UCMJ.) They may be tried by courts martial for offences committed while in a retired status.” (ibid)
Hanson proceeds to demonstrate conclusively – case by case – how each of the accused has convicted himself by false, contemptuous and/or treasonous public statements. Hanson’s list of violators is impressive: in addition to those mentioned above are Generals Michael Hayden, John Allen, James Clapper, Martin Dempsey, Barry McCaffrey, and Admiral William McRaven. (ibid)
What should be done about these offenders will be discussed below.
First, there are other major issues to be considered beginning with the United States Constitution, Section 2, which clearly states:
“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States. . .. “
This statement has always been interpreted literally, meaning that the authority of the President over the military forces of the country has never been challenged. All the following Presidents are among those who have called up the military to assist in the maintenance of law and order: Washington, Madison, Lincoln, Cleveland, Hoover, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and George H.W. Bush.
There is a very good reason why the Founders stipulated that the military should be under civilian control. That reasoning starts with the historical fact that “whoever has the guns controls the people”. The Founders were acutely aware of this fact. Had not the colonists been armed; they could never have prevailed against the British in their War of Independence. (The same logic applies to the 2ndAmendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms.)
Since the military has the guns, it is vitally necessary that control of those weapons reside in the civilian authority. The alternative can be seen in the many countries in Latin America and the Middle East which are in effect governed directly or with the consent of the Army. Recent examples are Egypt and Venezuela.
To argue against that fundamental organization of the American government is to promote treason. This is why the UCMJ provides for trial by a court martial of any member of the military, active or retired, who advocates the usurpation of the authority of the President over the military. “Political neutrality” means that the military follow the orders of whoever is President without regard to his or her party or policies.
I suspect there is another reason for this bias against this particular President. He is adamantly opposed to the “endless wars” which have dominated America’s foreign policy since 1948 when Truman committed us to Korean independence. These officers have grown up with that policy as a sacred dogma: “America is the policeman of the world”, the “savior of world order”, the “last hope of mankind”, the “bastion of freedom”. These men have dedicated a good portion of their lives to the upholding of that doctrine and seen comrades in arms killed or maimed in its defense.
Now, along comes this civilian who sees things very differently. He sees wars as engines of destruction – of lives, of national wealth, of families, and international commerce. He seeks radical reforms of America’s alliances and trade, and thus introduces a whole new world to these aging warriors. They seehim as the “engine of destruction”, the destroyer of all they have worked for and profited from all their lives. Internationalism gone, close allies downgraded, in some cases alienated. It is just too much. So, they resort to the pen and TV. They believe they serve a sacred cause.
But that cause is neither sacred nor worthy of their efforts. It is the age-old drama of resistance to a new day, to the arrival of a new era. One could sympathize with their plight but for one thing: they are making life more difficult for their successors.
The active senior commanders have admired these very men all their lives, and now their heroes are advocating disobedience to presidential orders, allocating to the active force the authority to decide which of the President’s orders should be obeyed and which should be refused. An agonizing dilemma: obedience or treason!
As a civilian, I am appalled at the behavior of some of our most distinguished retired officers. It is my contention that this treasonous behavior must be stopped before we end up as a banana republic. One way to stop it would be to convene a court martial against one or more of the offenders. That should reinforce the lesson that this nonsense is dangerous to the republic which they have all fought to preserve, but which they are now seeking to destroy because of their own egos.
That is a bridge too far!
Let us restore trust in one another
As I studied Al Smith, I had to look him up and learn more about him. I found what we find in many great leaders — Abe Lincoln, FDR. It’s a focus on making our country a little better when we hand it to the next generation, and having a nonpartisan approach to team-building.
We meet in the spirit here tonight of unity, friendship and patriotism. And so I turned to history, for we’ve been through tough times in the past in our country, and often in history. I have found the way forward.
It’s tempting this evening to look back exactly a century to 1919, the year that Alfred Emanuel Smith first took office as governor of New York. It was in many ways a troubled time. Anti-immigrant fervor ran high, political corruption made national headlines. The glitz of the Jazz Age was real, yet working and living conditions for much of the American population were abysmal. The country was enjoying an economic boom, but a storm was on the horizon. So there’s a certain resonance here with today.
Tonight, I’d like to recede even further into history to 1838 and to Springfield, Ill., and an organization there called the Young Men’s Lyceum, which Abraham Lincoln’s friend William Herndon once described as a society that contained and commanded all the culture of that place.
The month was January, and Lincoln himself was just shy of 29. Violence by supporters of slavery had shattered the state and the nation. At the Young Men’s Lyceum, Lincoln rose to give an address called “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”
It’s a long speech, by my reckoning enough for 12 Al Smith dinners, and there weren’t any jokes. But the core of its message can be simply stated.
Lincoln observed great nations crumble for one of two reasons The first is aggression from the outside … [but] it was not the foreign aggressor we must fear. It was corrosion from within. The rot, the viciousness, the lassitude, the ignorance. Anarchy is one potential consequence of all this. Another is the rise of an ambitious leader, unfettered by conscience, or precedent or decency who would make himself supreme.
“If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
I think often of Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum speech because it embodies both our greatest hopes, and our darkest fears. Today, in our own time, we need only look around us. For decades, our political conduct has been woeful and a source of national paralysis. We have supplanted trust and empathy with suspicion and contempt. We have scorched our opponents with language that precludes compromise. We have brushed aside the possibility that the person with whom we disagree might actually sometimes be right. We proclaim what divides us and seldom even acknowledge what unites us.
Meanwhile, the roster of urgent national issues has continued to grow unaddressed and, given the paralysis, impossible to address, and all of this was approaching a level of crisis even before the specter of impeachment arose.
This is the moment for an act of remembrance. Remembrance of the core principles we used to know and live by, and that we now seem to have forgotten.
We seem to have forgotten that America is not some finished work, nor is it a failed project. Rather, it’s an ongoing experiment for which all of us bear responsibility, including a responsibility to repair.
We seem to have forgotten that the foundational virtue of democracy is trust. Not trust in one’s own rectitude or opinion, but trust in the capacity of collective deliberation to move us forward.
We seem to have forgotten that cynicism, which has now infected the Western democracies, is not realism, for all the weary and knowing heirs it affects. Cynicism is just cowardice.
And finally, we seem to have forgotten the paramount importance of those bonds of affection that Lincoln once spoke of.
We need one another more than ever when the chips are down.
Historically, we have come together in those moments; after the attack on Pearl Harbor, after the 9/11 attack on this very city. The surest path to catastrophe is to ignore our better angels and sever those bonds of affection.
It is hard work to make our democracy work, and indeed our Constitution was designed to make it hard. But as hard as it might be, it is also noble work, for we’re building a country here.
… One day [in Iraq when I was in command there] we apprehended an insurgent in the act of planting a mine on a major road. In fact, it was a road I’d just driven on. Now a prisoner bound hand and foot, he was brought to me by the Marines, because they were surprised to find that he spoke English.
He and I talked for a bit, and I made clear he was lucky to be alive and that he had an orange jumpsuit in his future. He was, no two ways about it, the enemy. At least when he was doing his day job — or his night job. America, in his mind, was the great Satan.
But before he was loaded onto a truck to be taken off to confinement, he said, “General, can I ask you something?” And so I stopped and waited for him. He said, “If I behave myself, if I’m a model prisoner, is there a chance that my family and I can immigrate to America?”
His words reminded me how America is still viewed in the world, even among those who profess to hate it, America remains a power of inspiration in their lives as well. They see our freedoms and our vitality, our long tradition of democratic government, our chaotic and exuberant culture, and they want in.
I often wished that we Americans could see ourselves through foreign eyes. This would remind us of our great good fortune, and of the good things that we have in common. The good things we too often take for granted.
In Springfield, Lincoln invoked biblical language to describe how the power of this common spirit protects our nation. He said, as truly as had been said of the only greater institution, the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
So, ladies and gentlemen, with malice toward none and charity for all, let us restore trust in one another.
This is an excerpt from a speech by former defense secretary and Marine Gen. James Mattis, delivered Oct. 17 at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York City.