Have you ever sung the Star-Spangled Banner or said the Pledge of Allegiance with a group of World War II veterans? If you have, then perhaps you noticed the special relationship that the WWII generation has with that song and the flag. It is something to behold.
A few months ago, some of our veterans requested that we sing the national anthem to close every breakfast. One veteran with a crew-cut that betrayed his Marine Corps experience strode front and center and led all 100 of us in a beautful rendition that rang out with power and emotion. I’d heard and sung our national anthem many times, of course, usually at sporting events, where participation is often desultory. This was different. This was an expression of devotion.
The experience reminded of another Marine Corps veteran, Paul Moore, who recalled walking across Henderson Field after the Battle of Guadalcanal and seeing the American flag waving in the breeze. “It really made a difference,” he remembered, “it was beautiful. After all this horror and filth and terror and danger and cruelty and here was this beautiful red, white and blue thing flying in the sunshine, and you really felt, ‘yeah, this is my country.'”
Why do Americans from the World War II generation respond so powerfully to the symbols of our nationhood?
Part of the answer, of course, lies in their first-hand experience of a time when our nation was in jeopardy. You always draws closest to something when you’re in danger of losing it.
Another part of the answer lies in the culture of their youth, in which people valued public ceremony and formality far more than we do today, when flip-flops pass as everyday footwear, dinner is often consumed in cars, and some churches have drive-thrus.
Our hyper-casual age has been long in the making, a product of the
democratic culture and commercial amusements that spread across the country in the last century. The farther back in time you go, the more saturated the world was with potent symbols and rituals. Soldiers and sailors stood out in their gaudy uniforms, all epaulets and feathers. Everyone, in a sense, wore a uniform, announcing their social positions or jobs. Even during the 1940s, uniforms were ubiquitous, not only among military personnel but street sweepers and soda jerks. Guidons, flags, and ceremonial gatherings were part of everyday life, which was more public than today, when families consume culture in the privacy of their suburban enclaves.
Even as the power of public rituals and symbols declined in the twentieth century, something happened in the 1930s and 1940s to revive them. The Great Depression and World War II cast the future of American democratic capitalism in doubt. If one were to step back in time to, say, 1934 or 1941, and ask your average educated American where the world was heading, many would answer “Communism” or “Fascism,” as the rising world powers seemed to be Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Russia. America’s style of liberal democracy seemed on the wane.
Hitler and Stalin both made flamboyant use of rituals and symbols, flags especially. The Nazi and Soviet flags seemed to represent the vanguard of civilization, while the American flag was an almost quaint throwback to an age long past.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the war in Europe had become a titanic showdown between the world’s two most powerful forces, only one of which, it seemed, would come to dominate. When the United States entered the war, it offered hope for a different future, one more liberal and democratic. The Stars & Stripes symbolized not only a nation, but a global alternative to two brutal regimes bent on conquest. The United States, in a sense, was the world’s last best hope, and the men and women who lived through that time can never sing the national anthem or salute the flag without thinking about that perilous fight.