Fourth of July Reflections

Today we celebrate America’s independence, and perhaps it is the right time to remind ourselves that despite challenges, the U.S. remains the greatest country in the world. 

The 4th of July is an opportunity to reflect upon the enormous personal risk the signers of the Declaration of Independence faced.  Given that the declaration amounted to treason – a crime that would subject them to execution – we can still marvel at their words:

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Do we still have people who, like the signers, are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary?  Yes, but not as many as we might hope.  Why?  A recent Gallup poll says only 39% of U.S. adults are “extremely proud” of being American, almost unchanged from the historic low set last year (38%).  Even more disturbing is that only 18% of those in the 18-34 age group said “extremely proud.” 

Another data point is a March 2022 Quinnipiac University poll that found that a plurality (48%) of people in the 18-34 age group would flee the country rather than stay and fight (45%) if they were in the same position as the Ukrainians.

It should be no surprise then that military recruiting is in crisis.  The main reason young people would not consider joining the military?  The “possibility of physical injury or death.” 

Given that 77% of young people cannot meet military standards, the small number that would even consider military service causes a recent Department of Defense report to say that “less than two percent of the Nation’s youth are both eligible to serve and have a propensity to do so.”

Still, reason for optimism?

There are, thankfully, thousands of young people still willing to serve.  During a late June visit to Stockholm, Sweden, I got to see some of them firsthand when my wife and I were pleasantly surprised to see the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) ship Eagle docked in the downtown area.  It was welcoming visitors, and a constant stream of people were taking up the invitation. 

The Coast Guard describes the ship as:

“[A] 295-foot, three-masted barque used as a training vessel for future officers of the United States Coast Guard. Known as “America’s Tall Ship,” the majestic EAGLE is the largest tall ship flying the Stars and Stripes and the only active square-rigger in U.S. government service.”

Photo: Joy Dunlap

What I found especially interesting is that notwithstanding being in a foreign port, the ship flew an enormous American flag – no lack of American pride in the USCG!

But what seems to have most delighted the guests was the opportunity to meet the Eagle’s crew and, especially, the Coast Guard Academy cadets who were positioned around the ship to greet people and to answer questions.

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine better ambassadors for the U.S. than these future officers.  They were very sharp, fit, and amazingly knowledgeable, yet also extraordinarily personable.  I could not have been prouder of them. 

I wish everyone – and especially their peers – could see these terrific young people who, incidentally, seemed to be having the time of their lives.

In the age of hyper-sophisticated warfighting technology why do we have a sailing ship?  Here’s how the Coast Guard describes the ship’s mission:

Photo: USCG

“The ship offers future officers the opportunity to put into practice the navigation, engineering and professional theory learned in the classroom.  Upper-class trainees exercise leadership and perform the duties normally handled by junior officers, while under-class trainees fill the positions of junior enlisted crewmembers.

Photo: USCG

The experience builds character and helps future officers develop leadership and teamwork skills that prove valuable throughout their careers.

A permanent crew of eight officers and 50 enlisted personnel maintain the ship year round and provide a strong base of knowledge and seamanship for the training of up to 150 cadets or officer candidates at a time.”

Coast Guard Academy Cadets furl sail onboard Eagle.
Photo: USCG

I have to admire this ‘old school’ training technique.  (Anyone whose been in the service knows that an “experience that builds character” is kind of code for something that can be a very challenging – and often not fun – but also can show someone that they can succeed beyond what they may have thought they could.)

When you see the complexity of operating a sailing ship, you can appreciate how the unrelenting demands of the sea create a crucible that can teach lessons that would be hard (impossible?) to learn otherwise.

Interestingly, the ship itself was built in Germany in 1936 as a training ship for the German navy who named it for a loathsome Nazi, Horst Wessel.  During World War II the Nazis fitted it with anti-aircraft guns and continued to use it as a training ship. 

At the end of the war it was seized by the Allies, as international and domestic law permits, as a “spoil of war.”  It was sailed to the U.S. and recommissioned as the USCG Eagle.  Since then it has served as a USCG training ship and, really, world ambassador.

The Eagle’s presence in Sweden was part of its 2023 Summer Training Deployment.  The U.S. Department of Defense explains:

“USCGC Eagle (WIX 327) conducts a four-month summer training deployment, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, to provide practical seamanship skills to the future leaders of the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s commissioned officer corps, foreign military partner members and personnel employed by Tall Ships America. Eagle also facilitated diplomatic engagements while abroad to strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in Northern Europe, the Portuguese archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira, as well as Bermuda.”

Americans should be “extremely proud” of the magnificent young people aboard the Eagle – I certainly am!

More reasons to be proud

And, yes, there are more reasons Americans should be “extremely proud” of their country.  Though U.S.’s reputation around the world has suffered in some ways, it is notable that 160 million people still want to immigrate to the U.S. – far more than any other country on the planet. 

Moreover, in an excellent editorial, the Washington Post observed:

“Yes, we hear people who should know better say things have never been this bad. That’s as historically myopic as it is objectively wrong. Measured by almost every metric, the United States is better off than 200 — or even 20 — years ago. Start with economic well-being: The U.S.-led global order has brought millions out of poverty. America remains the capital of medical, technological and artistic invention.”

Additionally, Time notes that “During our own time of troubles, it is important to remember that in 1776 the men in powdered wigs who drew up the Declaration of Independence overcame political difficulties far more perilous than our own.”

Of course, there were others who would also risk it all for our freedom.  Here’s what Snopes points out:

John Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence

The signers of the Declaration of Independence did take a huge risk in daring to put their names on a document that repudiated their government, and they had every reason to believe at the time that they might well be hanged for having done so. That was a courageous act we should indeed remember and honor on the Fourth of July amidst our “beer, picnics, and baseball games.”

But we should also not lose sight of the fact that many men (and women) other than the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence — some famous and most not — risked and sacrificed much (including their lives) to support the revolutionary cause. The hardships and losses endured by many Americans during the struggle for independence were not visited upon the signers alone, nor were they any less ruinous for having befallen people whose names are not immortalized on a piece of parchment.

Concluding observation:

We should all be thankful there are still such talented young people such as those crewing the Eagle who are willing to serve and, if necessary, pay the ultimate price to defend the country.

At the same time, we all have a role to play in making our imperfect but incredible country a place everyone can be “extremely proud’ about. 

Let’s remember: we can improve.  As the Post’s editorial explains, “the United States’ proven capacity for renewal and self-improvement.”  It insists, correctly in my view, that the “staying power of our system comes from its ability to correct and recalibrate.”

So, on this Independence Day let us remember that we are dependent on each other to strengthen our families, our communities and our beloved United States of America. 

And, may we pause in gratitude for those who helped create, build and strengthen our country, and for those who continue to serve to keep our nation strong.

Happy 4th of July!  Celebrate America! 

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