The Fourth of July is the perfect time to tell the story of America. But which one?
Growing up in Canada, I learned a peculiar version in school. It started with the slaughter of the natives and continued with a silly revolution over taxes, one that helped preserve the horrors of slavery. From slavery, the story jumped to the excesses of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution and then to imperialism around the turn of the century. But if imperialism was cruel, the isolationism that followed it was callous. From there, we skipped to segregation, Vietnam, and the Red Scare, which was posed as the precursor to a contemporary hysteria over Islamic terrorism.
Well, that’s one story of the USA. But why do its tellers seem to think that the American night has no stars, nothing but bats and owls and the insane moon? They are wrong, I concluded, and I turned to an altogether different American story.
This was a story of liberty — first, freedom from Europe through the bravery of the revolutionaries and the wisdom of the Framers. Next, freedom for all Americans through the altruism of Lincoln, the miracles of capitalism, and the righteousness of Martin Luther King. Finally, freedom for Europe through victories in three world wars, punctuated by the landing at Normandy and the simple genius of Ronald Reagan, the likes of which was still needed to bring liberty to the rest of the world.
Well, that’s another story of America, perhaps better suited to the fireworks that will light up the night. But America is large, it contains multitudes. Worse, made up of human beings, its history is complicated and often disappointing. And even if the apologetic version is correct, it no longer feels true; that is, the story does not seem to capture the essence of America, or at least the piece of it that has always resided inside me.
The story of America, I think, is not its peaks, not its valleys, and not the two set against one another. As F. L. Lucas once wrote:
Not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they have inherited from their faiths, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us, and to be forgotten, when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not wholly governed by its “stars.”
America is no mere legal fiction created by a small group of Founders, Framers, presidents, lawmakers, justices, and generals. No, it finds its expression and sustenance in the “unknown many” — each created equal, we remember — who have won a million “inconspicuous triumphs.”
To learn this story of America, turn to Grace Under Fire, a short selection of American letters of faith in times of war, edited by Andrew Carroll. An inspiration in his own right, Carroll is the founder of the Legacy Project, an all-volunteer operation to preserve American wartime letters. Published in 2007, the book includes selections from the American Revolution up to the War on Terrorism. Each letter from a soldier, veteran, or family member is sandwiched between Carroll’s unobtrusive contextualization.
In his introduction, Carroll writes that reading so many of these letters returned him to the faith of his youth. The soldiers reminded him of him timeless truths: “Even in the bleakest of circumstances, with God’s help, we can overcome all adversity. Through Him, we can endure any hardship. Because of Him, we are never alone.” Perhaps on the Fourth of July, the American soldier’s greatest victory — the maintenance of his or her faith — can inspire you as well.
Perhaps on the Fourth of July, the American soldier’s greatest victory — the maintenance of his or her faith — can inspire you as well.
“They can laugh about foxhole religion,” the book begins, in the words of Sergeant Alvin McAnney Jr., writing home to his wife in the fall of 1944 from Luxembourg. Let them, I’d say. Over the course of Carroll’s book, their laughter will give way to tears of admiration.
Join the Dorchester troopship, headed for Europe in 1943. Here Alexander Goode, a Jewish chaplain, describes the majesty of the Song of Songs in a letter to his sweetheart, Theresa Flax. “It is not long,” he writes. “But its beauty is overpowering. They are the lovesongs of the ancient Hebrews and as love poetry they have never been surpassed.” Then, held in suspense, read Carroll’s account of the Dorchester’s sinking:
As soldiers aboard the sinking ship began to panic, Goode, along with three other chaplains — George Fox (Methodist), John Washington (Catholic), and Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed) — did everything they could to calm the frightened men and help the wounded put on their life jackets. But only minutes later they made a horrendous discovery: There weren’t enough life jackets for everyone on board. According to eyewitnesses, once the chaplains made this realization, they quickly removed their own preservers — which meant they would almost certainly drown — and gave them to the first soldiers they could find. The last anyone saw of the chaplains was the four men, locked arm in arm, praying together as the ship went down, taking them and 672 other men to their graves in the icy water of the Atlantic.
Stop to think about the letter Staff Sergeant George Syer left behind for his infant son before shipping off to the Pacific in 1944. “I do not fear to go knowing that I too must share the responsibility of fighting for my country,” he wrote. “I have no desire to kill son only to save life, but there are times like these that one can’t understand, but seek to serve God and also my country seems the only true course to take.”
Has anyone yet found a truer course than this American way?
Swell in the pride and love expressed by Gabriel Navarro, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, in writing in 1943 to his son, Porfirio, a Marine corporal. Translated from Spanish, Mr. Navarro writes:
My dear son: If it is in the Almighty’s great scheme of things that you should be one of the many heroes who meets death in battle, defending your flag and noble ideal, I want you to know that to your father, as well as to your dear mother, who both love you very much, you will not die. You will still be alive in our minds and in our hearts. You will be living in our home, in which every object, every corner, every ray of light, will hold the memory of your presence.
Amid all of the day’s cynicism, rediscover the hope of 19-year-old Ruth Kwall, writing one day after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, upon realizing that her fiancé, Joseph Portnoy, would soon be off to war. “I want to tell you again, more surely than ever, that no matter how long or hard the siege may be I’ll wait for you forever,” she wrote. “I know, and darling you must too, that God in heaven will guard this precious thing and help preserve it and us for a time when the world will need tangible examples to show it that war does not end things; that good, beautiful emotions live on forever.”
Finally, return to the First World War, when Private Walter Bromwich questioned God’s purpose in a letter to his pastor back in Pennsylvania. “How can there be fairness in one man being maimed for life, suffering agonies, another killed instantaneously, while I get out of it safe?” he asked. “Does God really love us individually or does He love His purpose more?” Bromwich poses tough, wrenching questions. But he also offers an answer:
What I would like to believe is that God is in this war, not as a spectator, but backing up everything that is good in us. . . . I don’t know whether God goes forth with armies but I do know that He is in lots of our men or they would not do what they do.
In Grace under Fire, Andrew Carroll allows Americans not only to speak with their own voices, but also with the voice of their country. Using as his material the basic goodness and generosity of spirit in regular people, Carroll tells a different story of America. Across time and space, hope and despair, Americans have risen to serve their country and found a buoyant Grace. Or rather, Grace has found them, shining down upon America by blessing its people.
It cannot then be coincidental that, while reading Grace under Fire, in which Americans found faith when they were ready for it, I was approached by a Hassidic Jewish stranger and asked to join him in prayer. Afterward, he walked off into New York City’s Bryant Park, disappearing and leaving me stunned. It was my first time praying in months.
Carroll concludes the introduction to his book with a one-line statement of fact: “With trust in Him, life’s battles are already won.” On this Fourth of July, find some time to reflect upon the national motto and the great many unknown Americans who have lived it — or will live it — as best they can. It is not for nothing that Americans have said: In God We Trust.
— Elliot Kaufman is an editorial intern at National Review.