Patriot’s Day In a Time of War

On this Sunday in Monmouth County, there were none of the trappings of a holiday.

On a sultry day in late June, men in impossibly heavy uniforms of scarlet and green and white and blue marched in formation through the dirt roads and cornfields of New Jersey’s Monmouth County, minutes away from a battle that would see some of them slump forward, crumple in place or grasp their guts as they fell backward. A few hundred feet away, men, women and children in shorts, T-shirts and straw hats watched and cheered. In due time, the crumpled, formerly dead men rose from the field, dusted off the relics they wore and smiled. They had done their jobs well, these flesh-and-blood ghosts who re-enacted the American Revolution’s Battle of Monmouth for a crowd that numbered in the thousands.

In less than a week, middle-class America would be firing up grills or taking off for the beach to celebrate Independence Day in an age of peril, with rituals less connected to ideals than to mere recreation. But on this Sunday in Monmouth County, on a battlefield where real-life soldiers once fell and died, there were none of the trappings of a holiday. Certainly not for the hundreds of sweat-drenched men and women dressed in the style of the late 18th century, when patriotism in America was not a refuge for scoundrels, but a cause for which thousands died. They were there not as “re-enactors”-many of them loathe the word-but as self-taught teachers charged with preserving memory from one generation to the next.

Two hundred and twenty-five years have passed since another sultry day in Monmouth County, when the rebel American army marched from Valley Forge to New Jersey to skirmish with 20,000 British troops on their way to New York from Philadelphia. The battle took place on a day when temperatures soared into the triple digits, when wounded men cried out for water and then were silent. Historians remember the Battle of Monmouth (even if most of us who live within 25 miles of the place do not) because it was the last major battle in the North, and it set off George Washington’s most memorable departure from Olympian detachment, when he publicly berated General Charles Lee as if Lee were Billy Martin and he were George Steinbrenner.

I have a professional interest in the Battle of Monmouth because I’m writing a biography of one of the American generals who served there, Nathanael Greene. But I walked a portion of the battlefield this year not so much in pursuit of knowledge, but in hopes of personal inspiration. The men and women (this battle gave birth to the story of Molly Pitcher) who fought in the fields of Monmouth 225 years ago knew very well what it was like to be under attack, knew what it was to fight for a cause greater than self. It is difficult to consider their courage and their example without resolving, like a penitent after absolution, to be a better patriot, to avoid occasions of sins like apathy and cynicism, and to better appreciate the gifts of freedom and liberty.

On this second Independence Day since Sept. 11, we still are at war, or some form of war, and we figure to remain in that state for some time to come. It is a terrifying prospect, because we know that the enemy is ruthless, persistent and cunning. They may, and probably do, walk among us, unnoticed, waiting for their moment. To dwell on this is to become paralyzed.

They may hate our government’s policies. But they may also hate our way of life, which is to say that they hate our revolution and all that we have done with the liberty earned at places like Monmouth. Where we as a nation have been at fault, we may, with clever diplomacy and genuine humility, make amends. But we will not apologize for freedoms that are without parallel among the cultures that pray for our destruction.

The timid and the cultural relativists may argue that the enemy’s world of religious fundamentalism is no worse than ours, and perhaps may even be better in some way that defies traditional notions of common sense. The men and women whose legacy we celebrate with fireworks and barbecues would beg to differ; indeed, their dissents would be as colorful as anything the Gruccis could imagine. We live in a nation they would not recognize-a nation where the black man is not a slave; where women are the equal of men-and yet this nation is the result of their imagination, for they told us that we had individual rights which were self-evident; that our government’s powers were derived not from kings or God but from the consent of the governed.

Sadly, we have not always been admirable stewards of these ideals, whether at home or abroad. At the moment, however, it is enough to know that their very existence infuriates the envious and animates the murderous.