I had a great experience the other night. I met some of the 114 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. It was at their annual dinner, held, as it has been the past four years, at the New York Stock Exchange.
I met Nick Oresko. Nick is in his 80s, small, 5-foot-5 or so. Soft white hair, pale-pink skin, thick torso, walks with a cane. Just a nice old guy you’d pass on the street or in the airport without really seeing him. Around his neck was a sky-blue ribbon, and hanging from that ribbon the medal. He let me turn it over. It had his name, his rank, and then “1/23/45. Near Tettington, Germany.”
Tettington, Germany. The Battle of the Bulge.
When I got home I looked up his citation on my beloved Internet, where you can Google heroism. U.S. Army Master Sgt. Nicholas Oresko of Company C, 302nd Infantry, 94th Infantry Division was a platoon leader in an attack against strong enemy positions:
- Deadly automatic fire from the flanks pinned down his unit. Realizing that a machinegun in a nearby bunker must be eliminated, he swiftly worked ahead alone, braving bullets which struck about him, until close enough to throw a grenade into the German position. He rushed the bunker and, with pointblank rifle fire, killed all the hostile occupants who survived the grenade blast. Another machinegun opened up on him, knocking him down and seriously wounding him in the hip. Refusing to withdraw from the battle, he placed himself at the head of his platoon to continue the assault. As withering machinegun and rifle fire swept the area, he struck out alone in advance of his men to a second bunker. With a grenade, he crippled the dug-in machinegun defending this position and then wiped out the troops manning it with his rifle, completing his second self-imposed, 1-man attack. Although weak from loss of blood, he refused to be evacuated until assured the mission was successfully accomplished. Through quick thinking, indomitable courage, and unswerving devotion to the attack in the face of bitter resistance and while wounded, M /Sgt. Oresko killed 12 Germans, prevented a delay in the assault, and made it possible for Company C to obtain its objective with minimum casualties.
Nick Oresko lives in Tenafly, N.J. If courage were a bright light, Tenafly would glow.
* * *
I met Pat Brady of Sumner, Wash., an Army helicopter medevac pilot in Vietnam who’d repeatedly risked his life to save men he’d never met. And Sammy Davis, a big bluff blond from Flat Rock, Ill., on whom the writer Winston Groom based the Vietnam experiences of a character named Forrest Gump. Sgt. Davis saved men like Forrest, but he also took out a bunch of bad guys. And yes, he was wounded in the same way as Forrest. That scene in the movie where Lyndon Johnson puts the medal around Tom Hanks’s neck: that’s from the film of LBJ putting the medal on Sammy’s neck, only they superimposed Mr. Hanks.
I talked to James Livingston of Mount Pleasant, S.C., a Marine, a warrior in Vietnam who led in battle in spite of bad wounds and worse odds. I told him I was wondering about something. Most of us try to be brave each day in whatever circumstances, which means most of us show ourselves our courage with time. What is it like, I asked, to find out when you’re a young man, and in a way that’s irrefutable, that you are brave? What does it do to your life when no one, including you, will ever question whether you have guts?
He shook his head. The medal didn’t prove courage, he said. “It’s not bravery, it’s taking responsibility.” Each of the recipients, he said, had taken responsibility for the men and the moment at a tense and demanding time. They’d cared for others. They took care of their men.
Other recipients sounded a refrain that lingered like Taps. They felt they’d been awarded their great honor in part in the name of unknown heroes of the armed forces who’d performed spectacular acts of courage but had died along with all the witnesses who would have told the story of what they did. For each of the holders of the Medal of Honor there had been witnesses, survivors who could testify. For some great heroes of engagements large and small, maybe the greatest heroes, no one lived to tell the tale.
And so they felt they wore their medals in part for the ones known only to God.
In a brief film on the recipients that was played at the dinner, Leo Thorsness, an Air Force veteran of Vietnam, said something that lingered. He was asked what, when he performed his great act, he was sacrificing for. He couldn’t answer for a few seconds. You could tell he was searching for the right words, the right sentence. Then he said, “I get emotional about it. But we’re a free country.” He said it with a kind of wonder, and gratitude.
And of course, he said it all.
* * *
What this all got me thinking about, the next day, was . . . immigration. I know that seems a lurch, but there’s a part of the debate that isn’t sufficiently noted. There are a variety of things driving American anxiety about illegal immigration and we all know them—economic arguments, the danger of porous borders in the age of terrorism, with anyone able to come in.
But there’s another thing. And it’s not fear about “them.” It’s anxiety about us.
It’s the broad public knowledge, or intuition, in America, that we are not assimilating our immigrants patriotically. And if you don’t do that, you’ll lose it all.
We used to do it. We loved our country with full-throated love, we had no ambivalence. We had pride and appreciation. We were a free country. We communicated our pride and delight in this in a million ways—in our schools, our movies, our popular songs, our newspapers. It was just there, in the air. Immigrants breathed it in. That’s how the last great wave of immigrants, the European wave of 1880-1920, was turned into a great wave of Americans.
We are not assimilating our immigrants patriotically now. We are assimilating them culturally. Within a generation their children speak Valley Girl on cell phones. “So I’m like ‘no,’ and he’s all ‘yeah,’ and I’m like, ‘In your dreams.’” Whether their parents are from Trinidad, Bosnia, Lebanon or Chile, their children, once Americans, know the same music, the same references, watch the same shows. And to a degree and in a way it will hold them together. But not forever and not in a crunch.
So far we are assimilating our immigrants economically, too. They come here and work. Good.
But we are not communicating love of country. We are not giving them the great legend of our country. We are losing that great legend.
What is the legend, the myth? That God made this a special place. That they’re joining something special. That the streets are paved with more than gold—they’re paved with the greatest thoughts man ever had, the greatest decisions he ever made, about how to live. We have free thought, free speech, freedom of worship. Look at the literature of the Republic: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist papers. Look at the great rich history, the courage and sacrifice, the house-raisings, the stubbornness. The Puritans, the Indians, the City on a Hill.
The genius cluster—Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Madison, Franklin, all the rest—that came along at the exact same moment to lead us. And then Washington, a great man in the greatest way, not in unearned gifts well used (i.e., a high IQ followed by high attainment) but in character, in moral nature effortfully developed. How did that happen? How did we get so lucky? (I once asked a great historian if he had thoughts on this, and he nodded. He said he had come to believe it was “providential.”)
We fought a war to free slaves. We sent millions of white men to battle and destroyed a portion of our nation to free millions of black men. What kind of nation does this? We went to Europe, fought, died and won, and then taxed ourselves to save our enemies with the Marshall Plan. What kind of nation does this? Soviet communism stalked the world and we were the ones who steeled ourselves and taxed ourselves to stop it. Again: What kind of nation does this?
Only a very great one. Maybe the greatest of all.
Do we teach our immigrants that this is what they’re joining? That this is the tradition they will now continue, and uphold?
Do we, today, act as if this is such a special place? No, not always, not even often. American exceptionalism is so yesterday. We don’t want to be impolite. We don’t want to offend. We don’t want to seem narrow. In the age of globalism, honest patriotism seems like a faux pas.
And yet what is true of people is probably true of nations: if you don’t have a well-grounded respect for yourself, you won’t long sustain a well-grounded respect for others.
* * *
Because we do not communicate to our immigrants, legal and illegal, that they have joined something special, some of them, understandably, get the impression they’ve joined not a great enterprise but a big box store. A big box store on the highway where you can get anything cheap. It’s a good place. But it has no legends, no meaning, and it imparts no spirit.
Who is at fault? Those of us who let the myth die, or let it change, or refused to let it be told. The politically correct nitwit teaching the seventh-grade history class who decides the impressionable young minds before him need to be informed, as their first serious history lesson, that the Founders were hypocrites, the Bill of Rights nothing new and imperfect in any case, that the Indians were victims of genocide, that Lincoln was a clinically depressed homosexual who compensated for the storms within by creating storms without . . .
You can turn any history into mud. You can turn great men and women into mud too, if you want to.
And it’s not just the nitwits, wherever they are, in the schools, the academy, the media, though they’re all harmful enough. It’s also the people who mean to be honestly and legitimately critical, to provide a new look at the old text. They’re not noticing that the old text—the legend, the myth—isn’t being taught anymore. Only the commentary is. But if all the commentary is doubting and critical, how will our kids know what to love and revere? How will they know how to balance criticism if they’ve never heard the positive side of the argument?
Those who teach, and who think for a living about American history, need to be told: Keep the text, teach the text, and only then, if you must, deconstruct the text.
When you don’t love something you lose it. If we do not teach new Americans to love their country, and not for braying or nationalistic reasons but for reasons of honest and thoughtful appreciation, and gratitude, for a history that is something new in the long story of man, then we will begin to lose it. That Medal of Honor winner, Leo Thorsness, who couldn’t quite find the words—he only found it hard to put everything into words because he knew the story, the legend, and knew it so well. Only then do you become “emotional about it.” Only then are you truly American.