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Reflections on the Fourth of July

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The Fourth of July is a day of patriotic pageantry: flags, fireworks, and festivities with family and friends. Yet it's also a day to reflect on freedom: its high price as well as its sacred meaning. Our troops have historically paid a high price to maintain our freedom, hence our national tendency to anoint them as heroes. As laudable as that tendency is, we must resist the urge to idolize our troops as universal heroes, even as we take time to recognize and thank them for their service.

It's tough to be a veteran. PTSD and other wounds, seen and unseen, remain a serious problem. So too is the challenge of finding a job in a sputtering economy. And here our blanket hero rhetoric may hinder more than help. As a nation, we want to clap our troops on the back and tell them what great and noble deeds they've done in our name. Yet we hesitate to probe more deeply into their experiences -- or their pain. We're content to place them into honorific categories like "warrior" and "hero" that elevate them while simultaneously separating them from the rest of us.

In so doing, we may do much to relieve our consciences, but we also burden our troops and veterans with impossibly high expectations. For as a veteran if I'm a "hero" (and a "warrior" to boot), I should be able to endure the worst of war without seeking help. I should be able to don a mask that admits neither weakness nor doubt nor discomfort. After all, heroes are saviors; they shouldn't need saving.

But our troops and veterans do need help; they may even need saving. Despite all the "warrior" rhetoric, they remain our neighbors or our neighbor's kids. Despite the "hero" hype, they remain fragile and imperfect human beings -- just like the rest of us. Yes, they bravely chose to step forward to serve our nation, and for that they deserve commendation. But in commending them in full measure with patriotic parades and pageantry, let's not see only a warrior's visage or a hero's countenance as they march by. Rather, let's see ourselves reflected in their proud and weathered faces.

As we look upon those faces, let's reflect as well on their oath of service, an oath to support and defend our Constitution, the founding document that enshrines our freedoms. Let's reflect that the full exercise of those freedoms may discomfort us as often as it brings comfort, but that from discomfort comes passion, even provocation, qualities much to be preferred to apathy and complacency bred by conformity.

On this Fourth of July, let's recall that our founders were passionate provocateurs, treasonously so from the perspective of Britain's king (and many of their fellow countrymen). Passion and provocation fashioned this country. We need them still. How else are we to challenge the tyranny of today if we don't recognize the need for, even the heroism of, passionate and provocative dissent?

This July 4th, let's celebrate our freedoms as well as its protectors of all stripes. But after the parades and flag-waving and bomb-bursting are over, let's protect our freedoms the best way I know how: by passionately exercising them.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

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