McLean column: A Memorial Day essay on patriotism |

McLean column: A Memorial Day essay on patriotism

Approaching Memorial Day, I always think of those with whom I served, those who are serving now and who served before. I cannot imagine the hell of Guadalcanal, Okinawa, the Bataan Death March, Normandy or Chosin in Korea. It was even worse for those who fought in the Civil War.

Everything is relative. Vietnam was awful for some, not so bad for others. We who flew were much luckier than those grunts who went on patrol in the jungle trying to ambush the VC or NVA and trying not to get ambushed.

The Colorado Green Berets currently serving in Afghanistan are in their own version of hell as all their hours are filled with some form of combat and a fight for survival.

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, a day to place flowers on the graves of Civil War soldiers from both sides. Irish and German immigrants bolstered Union forces during that war. They quickly embraced the values of the American republic and became true patriots by their service to the country.

I believe all who serve are patriots. Patriotism is defined as love of country. Our historic example of patriotism is Nathan Hale who reportedly said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” prior to being hanged by the British.

Serving in the military instills a sense of patriotism. When I was at CU, a classmate of mine wanted to enter the nuclear submarine force as an officer. At that time, Adm. Rickover interviewed all office candidates for the nuclear program. The admiral’s first question to him was what percentage of his desire to enter the program was for himself and what percentage for the country. His answer was that it was 50:50. The admiral had him stand at attention and wave an American flag for the remainder of the interview. After negotiation, the admiral accepted 90 percent for himself and 10 percent for the country.

While I agree with the admiral in his evaluation that self-satisfaction is a strong motivator, I believe that service in a small unit creates a stronger sense of patriotism. In military training, one learns to put one’s unit above self. Then one puts the larger effort above self. Finally, one puts country above self.

In his vivid book,“Flight to Arras,” famous French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery describes the emotions of flying a suicide mission against an overwhelming Nazi force.

At that time, stopping the Nazi invasion was obviously not feasible — as he states, “bayonets against tanks.” Did he fly that mission out of patriotism or loyalty to his friends in the squadron?

Undoubtedly during WWII, the Nazi soldiers were highly motivated. That motivation probably rose to the level of patriotism, although we would view it as misplaced.

Reading Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage” I am impressed by the bravery of Lewis and Clark on their expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase. They were undoubtedly patriots, motivated by a desire to push the borders of U.S. influence and control. They also had personal motivation. They were curious, adventuresome, brave, tough and loyal. Like many Americans after them, they were also a bit arrogantly proud to be American. After all, they had defeated the most powerful nation in the world during the Revolutionary War.

I watched a Latino man and what I assumed were his children as I drank my coffee in Dos Gringos recently. The man I presumed to be the father spoke only Spanish while his children ordered in English for him. His son wore a Broncos shirt. While the dad probably has cultural loyalty and maybe feels patriotic love for his native country, I suspect the children will grow up as American patriots with pride in being American.

The Cubans I knew in South Florida quickly became American. The parents had fled Castro and were firmly anti-communist. The children, like many immigrants, grew up to be patriotic Americans.

They believed strongly in the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To most in the developing world, America is truly the land of opportunity.

It was very difficult for me to understand how the 9/11 hijackers could have lived in our country and still commit that atrocity. Having worked in the Middle East, I knew that their lives here had to be significantly better than in their native homes. Still, their hatred of our way of life led them to attack us and kill more than 3,000 innocents.

The terror attack on Manchester with a terrorist born in England illustrates the difficulty of integrating Islamists into our society. Values are very different between Islamists and the rest of the Muslim world. An insurmountable gap exists between their values and our Western values. We are literally ages apart from them as they live in a barbaric past.

We should not expect anything but terror from them. They will never integrate and become patriots in America.

Roland McLean, an Aspen Glen resident, is a University of Colorado graduate, Navy veteran and retiree after more than 30 years in international construction. His column appears on the fourth Thursday of each month. Reach him at

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