The Army at 225: a new patriotism

June 15, 2000|By Eric K. Shinseki

WASHINGTON -- In two weeks, Mel Gibson's latest movie, "The Patriot," opens nationwide. Set during the American Revolution, it is the story of a colonist who becomes a militia leader when the sweep of war and the advance of the British endanger his farm and family.

Whether by design or mere coincidence, the release of "The Patriot" comes at a particularly fitting time in our nation's history because this month marks the 225th anniversary of the birth of our Army.

The birth of our nation and the birth of our Army are inseparably linked.

A year before we formally declared our independence, we had already begun fighting for it at Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, the bloodiest single engagement of the Revolution. On that small piece of ground, over the course of one day, the British lost a staggering 1,054 regulars. The colonists lost about 440.

After Bunker Hill, the British would never again underestimate the tenacity and fighting spirit of the American soldier. These early engagements surprised the British, who saw themselves as professionally trained soldiers and the militiamen as little more than a disorganized rabble.

But let us not forget that we surprised ourselves as well. Despite our dogged determination to confront the foe, we were unproven and uncertain of our abilities. Who could have imagined that our ill-equipped and untrained colonial militia would fare as well as it did? Our success in those early battles was significant.

The victories strengthened national pride, engendered new confidence and bolstered the will to fight. When word spread down the coast that New England farmers had successfully stood up to the well-equipped and well-trained British regulars, colonists everywhere were filled with newfound courage and patriotic fervor. Frustration turned to motivation, and from that point on, the cry for independence simply would not be quelled.

On June 14, 1775, Congress took the first formal step in the march toward independence by voting to establish what was then the Continental Army.

In those days, the term patriot more closely equated to insurgent. A patriot was a revolutionary who promoted the independence of his people from the country or union of countries that controlled them.

From the British perspective, patriots were criminals; to them, the term was an epithet carrying the negative connotation of disloyalty. Thus, in 1775, when George Washington dubbed the original rag-tag band of fighters "the patriot army," he was making a profoundly political and deliberately inflammatory statement; this newborn army would win independence for America.

Over time, the word "patriot" evolved to a more heroic meaning -- a person who loves his country and who defends and promotes its interests. It is especially applied to soldiers who fight for love of country. Thanks to the success of the American Revolution, the connotation of that simple term changed from one of disloyalty to one of allegiance.

Since the end of the Revolution, American soldiers, imbued with the spirit of the original patriots, have pledged their allegiance to this nation through their sacrifices in uniform. In doing so, hundreds of thousands of them have given their last full measure of devotion in ultimate demonstration of love for country.

Today, thousands of soldiers serve around the globe to maintain our freedom and to provide the promise of a better life to others for whom liberty is but a dream. They are the finest men and women the nation has to offer -- active, guard and reserve soldiers doing the heavy lifting so we can enjoy the comforts and freedoms of our way of life.

They are unknown to most of us, but they sacrifice daily in places like Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, East Timor, Kuwait, Korea and Macedonia in order to promote democracy and to preserve peace and stability.

These men and women are our patriots. They are prepared to defend our country, and they are also the best ambassadors for democracy we could have, carrying the same torch of liberty that was lit 225 years ago. In the remotest corners of the globe, American soldiers command respect because they symbolize the traits of our forefathers: a passion for liberty and a willingness to fight to protect freedom.

As we reflect on the Army's 225th birthday, let us remember that with our Army was born a nation; with that nation was born democracy; and with democracy was born the hope that peace and liberty could someday be attained by all oppressed peoples of the world.

Gen. Eric K. Shinseki is chief of staff of the Army.

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