By Matthew Wadler:
I happened to be flipping through the channels a few days ago, and came upon the beginning of a car race. Not being a race fan, I couldn’t tell you what type of racing it was. However, what made me stop and take notice was that during the playing of the National Anthem not a single person was kneeling, wearing a hat, or even looking bored. Every single face that was shown sat in silent deference to the anthem. It was an amazing moment for me and got me thinking about my own response to the Star-Spangled Banner.
I find it very hard to not get teared up while listening to our countries anthem. There is so much symbolism and history built into it that I cannot help myself from thinking about the totality of our country. I believe it elicits this type of reaction with the majority of veterans out there. While there are some of us who feel jaded for one reason or the other, overwhelmingly we as a group view the flag, constitution, and anthem as almost our holy trinity. They are three separate items, but at the same time they represent so much more and that representation crosses their barriers so that the edges are blurred and ill defined. It is hard to speak of one without overlapping into the realm of the other two.
For most of us who have served in the past 20 years, our service is marked with multiple deployments. Whether these deployments consisted of serving in an area of active combat or serving in a support role in locations such as Manas or Kuwait, they all involved sacrificing for a commitment in something outside ourselves. This commitment is typically manifested in our belief and love of the constitution. It is also rooted in the knowledge of what our brothers and sisters in past wars have done for the furtherance of the liberties set forth in this incredible document. We are reminded of this when we stop and render honors to the flag during the playing of our anthem.
As military, past and present, reading the words and listening to the story behind the Star-Spangled Banner makes it difficult not to be overwhelmed by the history and to attempt to judge ourselves to the standards set by those incredible men. For those who are not aware, allow me to briefly educate you. The conflict which gave birth to the anthem was the Revolutionary War Part II, or as historians refer to it, the War of 1812. Shortly after winning our independence from England we once again found ourselves fighting against the British Empire (along with Canada and many Native Americans). It was not going well for our fledgling country. The British not only captured Washington DC, but burned down the Whitehouse and other important structures. To top it all off, our President was forced to run or risk capture or death by the advancing forces. Victory was at the hands of the British and most in America felt the vice closing in around them from all possible avenues. The British then set their sights on the city of Baltimore. This was intended to be the final blow to completely break the Americans and once again prove British superiority.
To realize this plan the British had to get by Fort McHenry, commanded by Major Armistead. There was never a doubt that the British would be attacking Baltimore as it was not only a tactical and commercial target, but a major piracy port against the empire. In preparing for the fight, Major Armistead told his commanders that, “it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” This statement must not be simply brushed aside as it signifies the true American Spirit which has been a constant in our military since our inception as a nation. Major Armistead was not satisfied with the enemy simply acknowledging his presence through battle. He wanted to show a level of audacity and arrogance to a battle tested and proven foe. He wanted them to know that their numbers and weaponry would give them no advantage and that he would prevail against an unbeatable opponent. This arrogance in the righteousness of cause and accomplishment of mission can still be seen in our military today. Major Armistead ended up having two flags commissioned. One was a standard storm flag to be flown at the fort during the typical inclement weather, but the second was the largest American flag ever made at that time, measuring thirty by forty-two feet. At the inception of the battle it was the storm flag that was flying at the fort.
To begin the attack, the British marched upon the fort. The Americans not only repelled this attack, but did so by meeting the British outside of the fort’s wall. Upon suffering defeat there, the British began their bombardment, which lasted for twenty-five hours. The British, whose cannons were superior to those of Fort McHenry, stayed outside the range of the forts defenses. This bombardment took place while an American by the name of Francis Scott Key sat by and watched upon the British flag ship. As he watched the bombardment of this fort and realized that with its loss came the loss of his nation, he began to write a poem.
He begins the first verse of the poem by asking a question: at the breaking of the dawn with his view obscured by the mist and haze of battle, is the flag of his country still standing as it was the night before? He knew it flew through the night as the British never let up on their barrage. Yet at the new day, with the assault now paused, what is the state of our country born to an amazing experiment in freedom? This first stance of the song only asks a question, almost a pleading, do we still exist?
He begins the second verse explaining the arrogance of the British in their absolute belief that they had destroyed the American resolve and simply sat in anticipation for the view to confirm what they already knew as an absolute. Yet when the morning breeze sweeps away the fog of battle, they are left with having to acknowledge that not only was the fort still standing, but they had hoisted the large garrison flag to ensure the fleet knew that they were still willing to fight on and their resolve had only been strengthened. This flag embodied the belief of Key in the moral superiority of our country. A country that was land of the free and home of the brave.
In the third verse he states that with this victory America is washing away the foulness of the British invaders with their own blood. He asks where is the arrogance of the British officers now faced with an enemy that took the entire might of the strongest navy the world has ever known, yet still mocks them through the waving of the garrison flag flying in the morning light.
Finally, in what I believe to be the strongest of the four verses he states, “Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand; Between their loved home and the war’s desolation! Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land.” What he is stating here is that when a free society stands up for itself with the belief in their cause and the knowledge they are protecting their family and their way of life, there is no battle that they will not face and prevail in.
It would be my wish that all Americans could see the anthem through the lenses of my experiences. I wish that as a country we could understand the history that gave birth to our nation’s song. I wish that we could coalesce around the fact that, while there are problems we face and differences of opinions, we have more opportunity than any other country. I close this article with a quote that sums up all of my wishes for this country. It was from our sixth President, John Quincy Adams. I believe he was addressing all upcoming generations in this quote. Additionally, it carries a special meaning to me as a veteran as I believe it speaks directly to the emotional scars and mental burdens that so many military members carry. It also helps explain our reasons for so strongly identifying with the beauty of our national anthem.
“Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.”…….John Quincy Adams.
Matthew Wadler is an OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army veteran. Wadler served admirably for twenty years before retiring. His service included time as a paratrooper and two deployments to Afghanistan.