Suzanne Fields

Should we teach our children how to be patriots? That's the buzz of the moment propelled by victory in war. As our fighting men represent the democratic values of the United States, the question becomes less academic than cultural. You can hear it debated formally at scholarly conferences and political meetings and closer to the heart around the kitchen table and at home on the range.

The ultimate answer may be determined by how you define patriotism.

If you believe with Samuel Johnson that patriotism "is the last refuge of the scoundrel," it's the last thing you want to imbue in children. Nobody wants a houseful of scoundrels. But surely such cynicism is not warranted today. Adlai Stevenson's description is more reflexive of our times. As the Democratic candidate for president in 1952, he spoke with great eloquence about patriotism to a convention of the American Legion.

"Men who have offered their lives for their country know that patriotism is not something; it is the love of something," he told veterans just home from World War II. "Patriotism is not hatred. . It is the love of this republic and the ideal of liberty of man and mind in which it was born, and to which this republic is dedicated."

The antiwar movement paints patriotic sentiment as jingoism and triumphalism, but these attitudes are rooted in a sensibility that has stagnated and grown sour since the Vietnam War. That's too bad. A new generation of fighting men and women do not see it that way. The antiwar demonstrators are caught in a time warp, stewing in an ignorance indifferent to reality.

Generational changes are dramatic. A headline in The Washington Post illuminates the generation gap: "Child of the Vietnam Era Is Now the Mother of a Marine." Children who entered their late teens and 20s with the dawn of the 21st century hold terrorists as their touchstone for patriotism, not violence in a Vietnam village. The Army in Iraq is a volunteer Army, not one coerced by a draft.

David Fish is a Marine who grew up in Herndon, Va., and hoisted an American flag on his red Ford pickup immediately after Sept. 11. He admired his grandfather who served in World War II. He told his mother that he enlisted in the Marines out of a sense of appreciation and duty: "How can I live here, have all the things we have, and not give something back?"

But even before 9/11, American kids were declaring new attitudes of patriotism. In a survey of 2,911 ninth graders, fully 91 percent said they were proud of the United States; 85 percent they had "great love for the flag." The survey, by the International Association for the Evaluation of International Achievement showed no significant differences in race, sex or family incomes.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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