At our town’s July 4th celebration, I overheard two 6-year-olds having a discussion as they waited for the summer sky to turn dark enough for the fireworks display.
“Why are there always fireworks on July 4?” one of them asked the other.
“My dad said it’s because of the bombs-bursting-in-air song.”
I laughed to myself, hearing the National Anthem described that way, but I decided not to wreck the boys’ evening with a civics lesson. I’ve always wondered why “The Star-Spangled Banner” became our nation’s anthem—a song about a battle that didn’t even happen during the revolutionary war. There are other songs that celebrate America without focusing on bombs bursting in air. There’s “America the Beautiful,” with lyrics that hail our spacious skies and purple mountains and remind us to “crown thy good with brotherhood.” And there’s “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” the song Dr. King quoted in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “From ev’ry mountainside, let freedom ring!”
Jose Ortega y Gassett, the 19th-century Spanish philosopher said, “Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.” I’ve been noticing recently how much attention humanity pays to violence through our songs and holidays and monuments. Recently, I was walking through Central Park in New York City and I came upon a large bronze statue I have passed by many times before but never stopped to examine. This time, I read the inscription on the base of the monument: “Seventh Regiment New York…in memoriam, 1917-1918.” World War I. Seven larger than life young soldiers carrying a dying, bloodied brother in their arms. I thought, how interesting, how strange, that humanity singles out war as the one form of boldness to memorialize.
I kept walking through the park and before long, I got to a statue of the Civil War Union General William Sherman. It is hard not to pay attention to General Sherman perched high on his horse, covered completely in 24-carat gold leaf. Sherman is known for liberating the South from the Confederate Army, and he is also credited with the destruction of Atlanta during his March to the Sea, and for his scorched earth tactics as Commanding General of the Indian Wars. His policies included the starvation of Plains Indians by the mass eradication of buffalo herds.
Why of all the people in our nation’s history, I wondered, does General Sherman get to sit forever on a gilded horse at the gateway to Central Park? And why is this the same all around the world? It doesn’t matter where you are—in Paris passing the Arc de Triumph; or in Volgograd, Russia, beholding the massive war statue, The Motherland Calls; or in Cambodia, in the temple ruins where mile-long walls depict religious battles. Wherever you are on this planet it seems to have been decided long ago that history would be annotated by the warriors. And that bravery would be associated primarily with a willingness to die for your ethnicity or religion or country.
I used to wonder about this as a kid. Why in school did we memorize the dates of battles and the names of the men who invented the atom bomb but not the names of the people who invented things like the washing machine, or solar panels, or the birth control pill? Certainly, these discoveries (which by the way, all involved women inventors) also changed the course of history. Who chose violent conflict as the one human activity to laud over all others? After college, when I was teaching in an inner-city school, I wondered what if, alongside the marble tombs for the unknown soldiers, there were monuments to the unheralded teachers who educate our children, keep them safe, prepare them to be good citizens?
When I became a midwife and I witnessed the courage of laboring women, I wondered what if next to a statue of a warrior holding his bloody comrade, there was an equal-sized statue of a woman delivering a baby—strong and noble, and, yes, bloody. Does that sound preposterous, gory, gross? Why? Blood is blood whether it is spilled on the battlefield as a young person dies, or in the delivery room, as new life is born
I’m a realist—I know that human behavior can sometimes become so twisted that force is required to stop it. But that does not mean we should celebrate violent force as the penultimate definition of being heroic. What happens to human consciousness when we memorize the dates of battles, and we pass the war memorials, and sing anthems with lyrics laced with bombs bursting in air? Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.
Do a random google search for “the top ten events in American history.” Here’s what I found: on the first site, all ten events were wars or attacks or assassinations; same with the second list. The third list had the Apollo flight to the moon, plus nine violent incidents. Really? These are the events we want to know ourselves by?
Tell me what would happen to us as a culture if next to the Vietnam War Memorial there was a similar wall with thousands of names of the people who have honed other ways of dealing with conflict—like communicating, forgiving, or working for justice so that the social conditions that spawn unrest are transformed before they explode? How about monuments to the pioneers in mental health who are helping people heal internal wounds before they inflict external wounds on others? Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.
With all deference to those who defend the nation, are we not also the caretakers of our culture—the mothers and fathers, the teachers and nurses, the farmers and earth stewards? Perhaps if we all pay more attention to the ordinary people, the everyday heroes doing the daily work of love, that is who we will become.
This essay was featured in the July 14th edition of The Sunday Paper and shared on Maria Shriver’s website: https://mariashriver.com/why-dont-we-celebrate-the-everyday-heroes/