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Veterans Day: I may not have the right bumper sticker, but I'm still patriotic

These days, if you want to prove you're patriotic, you must comply with some self-appointed citizen checklist – lapel, anthem, bumper sticker. For many of us, it is in service – and not flagrant display – where America's strength truly resides. We need more of this quiet, steady patriotism.

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As we pause today to honor America’s veterans, dead and living, and reflect upon their service and sacrifice, it is appropriate to think again about the ways and means of patriotism.

Next year, the college I lead will celebrate 60 years of commitment to ROTC. Dickinson Colllege has a long-standing academic arrangement with the US Army War College, which is located in our city. Across the centuries, many of our graduates have been military leaders; today, scores of our alumni are on active duty. One recent graduate, a young lieutenant, lost his life serving in Iraq; another was severely injured in Afghanistan.

At a recent commencement, I had the particular joy of sending 575 bright, ambitious students into the wider world – five of whom would later receive their commission into the Army. During my address, I reminded the audience of our college’s American Revolution origins, praised the democratic tradition, and urged our students to advance that gift with the education they had received.

After the program, however, my spirits were dampened when an audience member stopped to ask me a pointed question: “Why was 'The Star-Spangled Banner' not played during the ceremony?”

My questioner's posture was clear. It didn't matter what I had said during the proceedings or how deeply our college is involved in service to our country and community. Since we had failed to meet his expectations about how to run commencement, he concluded that we are unpatriotic.

This incident was yet another example of how America has become a nation of loud and prescribed patriotism. Apparently, if you want to prove you are patriotic, you must comply with some self-appointed citizen checklist – a list that might demand a particular anthem, flag display, lapel pin, or bumper sticker. According to this checklist, patriotism must be loud and visible. It must proclaim and even provoke.

My critic is entitled to his point of view, but many of us have a different concept of what constitutes authentic patriotism.

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