In keeping with this site’s call for reflective articles on the meaning of West Point’s motto to us over the years, I offer this impression on the third, and perhaps most profound, word of the three, ‘Country’. Previously I wrote one on ‘Duty’ and then one on ‘Honor’, citing the unexpected (at least when we were cadets) complexities and dilemmas that duty might demand by citing the 1994 Rwandan genocide in the first case, and offering in the second essay the example of the absence of honor to emphasize its critical importance by describing a corrupted prison system in Florida. The bottom line on both words — duty and honor — is that they are key, even noble, concepts that are worthy and necessary characteristics in addressing any event or challenge. Therefore, West Point was right to impress upon us their importance and helped prepare us to take on the challenges that came before us over the year in one way or another.
But what of ‘country’? Why do I say it may be the most profound of the three and therefore by implication the most binding and compelling? The simple answer is that the first two are concepts, essentially intangibles. We speak of ‘doing’ our duty and of doing it ‘with’ honor. Country, on the other hand, is tangible, an entity that exists in form and construct. It is a place as well as an idea, an entity that is defined by geographic boundaries and a system of laws and precedents with both the reality and the idea simultaneously empowered and constrained by a document known as the Constitution. We speak of and act in service to our country, as we pledged on that first day on the Plain in the summer of 1965 and again on the day we were commissioned in the summer of 1969.
It was important that we understood from the very beginning that we were to be subordinate to a higher entity and its lawful civilian leadership. After all, we were to be ‘soldiers of the state’, commissioned officers in fact, given authority over the armed elements the country would need to defend itself and to ‘uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States’. These were not mere words, but a solemn undertaking. They would put us in difficult places under challenging circumstances. For some of us, it would cost them their lives. We knew it was a solemn oath when we took it, but few – if any – knew how solemn.
As the years passed, some of the Class of 1969 put military duty behind them. Eventually, all of us did. But hardly any of us left the concepts of duty, honor, and country behind. In many walks of life, we ‘soldiered’ on, subordinating ourselves and our egos to those values. Together, they mark a trinity of loyalty and faith, of pride and destiny. We had come to fully realize their value, their meaning, their worth — not only to us but for the greater good.
Therefore, they do not and cannot stand alone. Each is important in its own right, but their power is greatly multiplied when joined together as one. But consider this. What has penetrated most deeply of all into our psyches is the image of country – our country, the United States of America. It is a great country, an exceptional country, which each and every citizen is privileged to be a part of. Paul Johnson, the prolific and renowned British historian who only recently passed from this earth, cited it as a ‘marvelous’ country. Having lived abroad for 17 plus years and visited dozens of other countries (to include Russia and China), for the most part in the line of duty, and having read extensively of other places and times, I would have to agree with him. There has never been another country like it.
Johnson also wrote in his award-winning book, ‘The History of the American People’ that he would hear no more of hyphenated Americans. “They are all Americans,” he stated, “… [a] black, white, red, brown, yellow swirling maelstrom of history which has produced the most remarkable people the world has ever seen.” My mother would agree with him. The daughter of immigrants (likewise her husband, my father) she replied with understandable umbrage, in 1942, to a questioner who, noting her Italian ethnicity, asked what country her recently drafted brother would be fighting for in the war (she was in Alabama at the time to catch a last few days with my father before he deployed to Europe): “America, of course. We are Americans.”
All along, the graduates of the West Point Class of 1969 have known intrinsically the wisdom of our West Point motto, but above all we have come to realize the beauty, value, and uniqueness of our country. We are proud of having done our duty (“…May it be said, ‘Well done’…) and we have strived to serve and live with honor (“…To keep thine honor bright…”), but we say and mean, without any self-consciousness, that we love our country. What greater emotion can one feel than love for someone or something cherished. Aside from our relationship with our Creator, what greater allegiance can there be? Duty, Honor, Country.
*Drafted early in 1942 and shipped shortly thereafter to England. Retired as a Master Sergeant in 1965.