I am not an American – though it is my intention one day to be one. Since 2006 I have lived and worked in the United States, my wife is American, I have invested the entirety of my life and soul in to this country. I even like to think, in a small and indirect way, I serve this great country through my teaching work for the U.S. Air Force, and it is a thought, delusional as it might seem, that gives me purpose. Ever since I lived in Lubbock, Texas, for two years in the late 1970s I have been in love with America (yes, Lubbock). When my family flew back to Britain in December 1981 I vowed that I would come back one day to stay for good.
I made several business visits to the United States in the late 1990s and early-to-mid-2000’s, including a visit to Washington, DC, on a sunny September morning. The night before I had visited with a friend in the Pentagon. The following morning I emerged from Capitol South Metro station on my way to the Library of Congress only to find pandemonium on the streets. That day was September 11, 2001, and like so many millions I was outraged.
Due to the attacks my stay in the United States was extended and that Saturday friends and I made a visit to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. There was nothing intentionally poignant about that visit, but for me it became so without looking for it. 9-11 was poignant for all of us for obvious reasons; my visit to Gettysburg, however, became personally poignant and a pivotal moment in my life. As I wandered through the military cemetery at Gettysburg I saw a family – mother, father, children, and their grandmother – all holding American flags. Like me they were reflecting upon the names and all-too-young ages of those who had fallen in that greatest of Civil War battles. What was poignant for me was not so much that there was an American family, all clutching the Stars and Stripes, wandering the military cemetery of Gettysburg. Rather, it was the fact that they were originally from India (the ladies all wore traditional Indian saris) – but were now naturalized U.S. citizens.
In that moment, in that military cemetery, a few days after 9-11, the idea of America crystallized in my conscience. It was not so much that I did not understand America prior to that moment – I understood it better than most Britons I know (living in Lubbock, Texas, will do that to you!), instead it was that at that moment I was able to articulate to myself and others what makes America different, special, and yes, exceptional. I had always subscribed to that notion without really realizing it – yet on that day and ever since I have understood America on an entirely different plain of consciousness. It filled me with a sense of hope and awe on one hand, but on the other it humbled me.
I suppose my friends and I visited Gettysburg that Saturday for the same reasons as I like to think the Indian-American family did. Their America – our America – had been attacked and despoiled by those who, if given the chance, would kick out the lights of human civilization – a civilization for which the United States is the ultimate guardian. We had all convened – perhaps subconsciously – upon this sacred site to not only grieve and make sense of what had just happened, but perhaps also to make a statement to ourselves and to the world. We shall endure. We shall pick ourselves up and strive for an even better America.
As someone who has the great fortune to interact everyday with American servicemen and women, I am often struck by the sense of malaise about America by a growing number of those who have sworn to defend it and the Constitution. In one sense I understand where this malaise stems from. The economy is in deep trouble, and the deficit is of serious concern. We are in the midst of a very difficult war, which, this coming fall, will have lasted ten years – the longest in U.S. history. Other nations are rising, seemingly snapping at our heels in areas that we have traditionally laid claim to be Number One. Our body politic is divided – even juvenile – and seems incapable of coalescing around the common good and the greater national interest.
These are all problems – serious problems even – but problems will always beset the United States. Yet, America has been here before and still it endured and strove to be better. America will endure these present troubles for sure, and will continue to strive to be even better yet again. Why do I believe this? Because I, like so many who are not born here but who profess a love for this place and its people, see an America that I am not sure those who are born and raised here do. America is the place where you can transcend your past, class, creed, race, and social-economic station. America is the place where hard work, innovation and perseverance can be rewarded. America is the place where not only can you reinvent yourself, but can – and has – reinvented itself, producing an even better, albeit different, America each time. This is something truly unique to America, the idea of America, and it is the reason why I will always bet on America.
Walter Russell Mead, writing in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, sums it up perfectly: “Change is our home field. It is who we are and what we do.”
Happy Fourth of July, and cheer up – you’re still the greatest.