Independence . . . a few thoughts

Fireworks over the water are a traditional part of July 4th celebrations in many parts of the country. Fire risk seems lessened, and exploding colors and sounds seem magnified by rippling water below and starry skies above. We have enjoyed such displays many times, watching with as much awe as any child.101_3074

A bit of background

Several years ago, as we made our way by boat across Chesapeake Bay and into Baltimore Harbor, we noticed an unusual buoy — not the normal red or green of navigational markers, not a warning orange — but rather red, white and blue.  At the same time, we couldn’t help but see the flag fluttering in the breeze at historic Fort McHenry, situated on a peninsula that intrudes into the Patapsco River not far away.

We later learned that the U.S. Coast Guard sets a ceremonial marker annually to mark the approximate spot where the words to the Star Spangled Banner were first written.

Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 517 (2)The unique buoy and an oversize flagpole brought home to us that year the reality of the battle that shaped the destiny of a young nation. History is like that — it sometimes takes being there to make it real.

The War of 1812, which began because of trade disputes and issues surrounding westward expansion, escalated when ongoing battles between Britain and France waned. It was a devastating time for a young country, and there were serious doubts about the ability to survive as an independent nation.

Much of New England never joined the fight. And, by the time it was over, the “second War of Independence,” as it is sometimes known, resulted in the deaths of 15,000 Americans, nearly as many as perished during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812 actually lasted for two years and eight months.

Putting it in perspective

The fighting at Fort McHenry took place September 13, 1814. By the time the battle was brought to Baltimore, the war was all but lost. Washington, D.C., including the White House, the Capitol and other government buildings, had already been burned. Gypsy-new camera-NJNYMDDC 519 (2)

This past May, on a trip to Bermuda, those events of 1814 became even more real. It was from this Atlantic island some 600 miles offshore that a fleet of British warships was launched on August 1, 104 years ago, carrying 5,000 British Army and Royal Marines troops. Even though the colonies had declared independence nearly 40 years earlier, the British had not yet given up.

It was at Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor that the tide of war changed; defenders fought off the British during more than 25 hours of intense bombardment.

During the fighting, a young attorney was detained on a British ship in the harbor, along with a physician whose release had been promised. Francis Scott Key, sometime poet as well as a lawyer, had negotiated a prisoner exchange with the British, set to occur after the battle. As the fighting ensued, he was inspired to write the words to a poem which was set to music, with the title Defence of Fort McHenry. Later Francis Scott Key added three more stanzas, all but forgotten today.

The Star-Spangled Banner, although popular, was not used ceremoniously for another 75 years. In 1890, it was adopted by the U.S. military for play during the raising and lowering of the colors.

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Touring the Royal Naval Dockyards this spring on the island known to its residents as “the Rock” or “Gibraltar of the West,” we actually thought little about Baltimore or the War of 1812. Instead we were focused on British history and maritime supremacy, until a chance remark brought back the memory of Fort McHenry, the flagpole and the buoy.  We toured the grounds of the British naval compound, walked the ramparts, and imagined those ships sailing towards Baltimore to quash yet another rebellion. With that clarity of perspective, we realized once again that we are still a very young country!

And so we celebrate . . .

It surprised me to learn that Independence Day was not even a holiday to celebrate until 1870, nearly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was drafted, and long after its authors had passed on.

It surprised me equally as much to learn that the song written by Francis Scott Key  National Anthem was adopted by presidential order in 1916, barely 100 years ago. Congress made it official only in 1931. The anthem made its official debut at a sporting event, a baseball game played in Chicago in 1918, during the turmoil of World War I.

And the fireworks? Well, that part of the celebration was added only after the poem was written and the song was performed.

None of that, however, diminishes the fun — or the spectacle. No matter what else occurs on the 4th of July, whether there are parades or solemn ceremonies, barbecues or backyard picnics, swim parties, bicycle runs or Days at Six Flags, it’s the fireworks that encompass the spirit of the celebration.

But, lest we forget, independence had a cost. It still has. So, as we celebrate, perhaps we should also consider just what independence means, and what price each of us is willing to pay to preserve it.

Stay safe, everyone, on this 4th of July, and enjoy your celebration, no matter what it is!

 

If you’d like to learn more, here are some resources:

http://www.sacredclassics.com/keys.htm

https://www.history.com/topics/the-star-spangled-banner

https://www.constitutionfacts.com/us-declaration-of-independence/fourth-of-july/

https://www.bermuda-attractions.com/bermuda_0002c2.htm

https://www.bayjournal.com/article/us_anthem_flag_arent_the_only_stars_at_fort_mchenry

 

A unique mystique . . .

4802076860_ce7d2a1221_bLegionnaires of the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment based in French Guiana were transported on September 11 to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin to help with rescue and clean up operations following Hurricane Irma. I would bet that others were on high alert as Maria turned toward Guadeloupe and Martinique just days ago.

I heard the news reports of France’s quick response, and I was once again entranced with thoughts of this band of men with a long history, a somewhat dubious reputation and a unique mystique.

Somehow, the desert and the sea always figured in my childhood dreams, along with a thirst for adventure, the appeal of colorful uniforms, and the sound of military marches.

The French Foreign Legion

This elite fighting force has always held inexplicable fascination. I once had a romantic notion that I could run away to North Africa and be a Legionnaire. 4566626508_a28b277564_bI pored over pictures of the bearded Sappers with their white kepis and leather aprons, and I listened endlessly to traditional marches, and to Edith Piaf singing “Mon Legionnaire” and “La Marseillaise.”

Strange, I know. But, truth be told, the same things thrill me today,

I wanted to know someone who joined up. I fancied myself fitting in to the hard life, seeing the world, and participating in endless adventure.

There is at least one major problem, however. First and most important, it seems, is that I was born female and, to this day, the Foreign Legion is a men’s club. Only a men’s club!

Actually, one British woman joined during World War II and served with distinction in North Africa. There have been no others.

And, yes, as outdated as it may seem, The French Foreign Legion still exists.

In fact, it thrives. The Legion has changed, but it is still an elite force. Only about 1000 men are admitted to the ranks each year.

Here’s how it works:

First, if you are male, between the ages of 17 1/2 and 39 1/2, you must get yourself to the door of a Foreign Legion facility within France. Literally, you must knock on the door of the Centre de Preselection in Paris or at the gate of Legion Headquarters in the hills above Marseilles; or at one of nine “recruiting offices” scattered in cities throughout the country. They are officially open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 6550986765_d4ae3024d0_b In truth, however, showing up during normal daytime business hours would be wise.

Potential recruits must have valid documentation from their country of origin, either a passport or government-issued ID, and a verified copy of their birth certificate obtained within the last six months. Aliases and anonymity are no longer an option.

And they must not be on Interpol’s wanted list!

Although it is expected that recruits will arrive with three sets of underwear and socks, sneakers, personal toiletries, and between 10-50 Euros, those who make it in the door are immediately provided food, lodging and uniforms.

That’s it; nothing else matters

Well, almost nothing else: Language doesn’t matter; there is no requirement to speak French. Marital status is unimportant: All recruits are treated as single men. There is no discrimination on the basis of citizenship, background, race, religion, education, training, previous military service, profession or expertise.

There are some “must nots” and some “should nots.” Among prohibited items are knives, weapons of any kind, and keys — no vehicle or personal house keys are allowed! Large amounts of cash, credit cards, jewelry and other valuables are highly discouraged. Cameras, personal computers and electronic devices must be left at home or abandoned.

Recruits must take IQ and personality tests, must pass sports and fitness tests, and must meet specific medical and physical standards. Only about one in eight candidates is accepted.4566623898_3897607b2f_b

Within a few days, those who “survive” an initial interview at a satellite center will be enlisted and transferred to one of the Legion’s two pre-selection centers, either in Paris or in the south of France. Finally, those who make it through the three to 14-day pre-selection testing are transferred to Legion Headquarters in Aubagne to complete the rigorous training process. And it is rigorous.

The initial commitment is for a five-year enlistment, and the entire pre-selection and selection process spans up to five weeks. After that there is training, and more training, then perhaps specialized training. And then duty assignments; often within France today,  sometimes in French territories, but truly all over the globe. The Legion has fought not only in French wars and in two World Wars, but in most of the world’s hot spots, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

This year, on July 14, I watched with fascination as the new French president and the new American president beamed with pride as the Bastille Day parade along the Champs Elysees in Paris reached its conclusion.  As always, a detachment of Legionnaires participated and, as always, this unique fighting force constituted the final unit in the parade. The marching cadence of the Foreign Legion is measured and impressive (88 steps per minute rather than the normal 120) and a fitting finale to a day full of military pomp and tradition. 7467186668_61d2457d6b_z

The mystery and the magic of this special force still exist. The Pioneers with their leather aprons and axes seem throwbacks to another era as they march with pride and precision; and the band sounds the familiar somber beat.

But, across the globe, other Legionnaires stand ready, as necessary, to don their fatigues and get to work to put a devastated island nation back together. Or to fight, if called. It’s good to know they still exist.

If you’re interested in learning more about the French Foreign Legion, visit Uniforms, History, or 2016 News.

All Photos via Flickr (1) Brian Farrell, 2010; (2 & 4) Marcovdz, 2010; (3) Maglegion, 1993; (5) Archangel 12, 2012

 

A time to be silent . . .

When the tourist buses leave, quiet descends and shadows begin to fall over the battlefields. A hush falls over the land, and it’s hard not to speak in whispers. It is also difficult to fight back the tears. Gettysburg is a stark reminder of another time, when the air was filled with smoke and cries echoed on the wind.

At least that’s how I imagine it. And those were my feelings last year in Gettysburg. The land was beautiful then, alight with the new growth of young grasses waving in the breeze and flowers blooming in the sun. And monuments. The monuments are both small and grand, sited haphazardly, it seems, on plots of ground that must have great meaning to the survivors of the men who fought here.

It’s a somber place in the late afternoon as the sun begins to move low over the western horizon. Battlefields are always somewhat difficult to visit. Civil War battlegrounds are especially sobering. They are smaller than expected, making it easy to imagine facing an enemy up close and personal and terrible to think about that reality.

The fields of Gettysburg, though, are expansive; the hills roll on into the distance; split timber fences delineate the fields, defining various encounters between Union and Confederate forces, and even driving through the area takes time. I felt compelled to walk among the monuments, to read the inscriptions, to wonder about the units they honored, and to think about the men who died on that ground.

Battlefields have a peculiar pull, no matter where I encounter them, and I have walked silently among the ghosts on battle plains across the globe, from the Little Big Horn to the beaches of Normandy, from the Golan Heights to Glorieta, New Mexico. I have also meandered among the headstones of military cemeteries in this country and in other nations, wondering about the lives of the men buried there, and about their survivors.

I always come away from battlefields with a sense of wonder that no matter how bloody the battle, the earth itself recovers from war relatively quickly. It is much more difficult for the people.

So today – Decoration Day was first celebrated on May 30, 1868 – at 3 p.m., the traditional hour of remembrance, I remember that battle fought long ago in Pennsylvania, and all the other battles of the Civil War and the wars that followed. Whether it’s now called Memorial Day or Remembrance Day or Poppy Day, I like to think that we are moving toward a time when battles will no longer be the way to resolve differences, when our children’s children can walk confidently into a future that only honors servicemen and women who died long-ago.

I thought about all of that yesterday as I enjoyed burgers and bratwurst, potato salad and apple pie with a small group of friends. It was a long weekend, after all, and it’s always good to be with friends and to share good food.

But today, because this is the real Memorial Day, I once again remember the fallen soldiers and those members of the armed services who still are called to give their lives in the service of their country.

The Civil War took more lives than any other this country has fought. We can debate, from the comfort of our time a century and a half removed, the issues that led to that war and that provoke other wars, but we cannot deny the consequences. And we must not forget that good and noble men fought on both sides. Warriors have left grieving families in all the battles since. It is good to pay homage to sacrifice like that.

Now, more than ever before, it seems imperative that we learn from our past. We can then move on to the task of writing the future the way we want it to be.

Let’s all remember our veterans this November 11

Poppy by Jenny Downing via Flickr
Poppy by Jenny Downing via Flickr

Today we are a long way in both space and time from the beaches at Normandy, the air fields of England and the islands of the Pacific, from the Gallipolli Campaign and the battlefields of Verdun, and from Gettysburg and Appomattox. We are also, too often, emotionally distant from the world’s current hot spots.

We have come a long way from those “great wars” that so gripped the spirit and the determination of a people. In the intervening century and a half, Americans have become war-weary, uncertain about the “just” causes we embark upon, and tired of it all. Today, fewer than one half of one percent (that’s 0.4%) of the population get up in the morning to dress in a uniform of the armed services. We still have troops around the world, however, and some of them are still dying for their country.

Veterans Day is November 11 and, because it falls on a Wednesday this year, I can’t help but wonder how many Americans will even think of its significance, or consider the millions of veterans who have served in our nation’s military services. At 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, how many of us will stop what we are doing to give a moment’s thought or a silent prayer for those who serve in the military. It’s not a long weekend, after all, not really a holiday, and it’s easy to forget. But those who daily don a uniform, whether they serve at home or in a war zone, cannot forget.

At the World War I Memorial in Kansas City, an Assyrian Sphinx shields its eyes from the war horrors.
At the World War I Memorial in Kansas City, an Assyrian Sphinx shields its eyes from the horrors of war.

The date and time commemorate the World War I armistice that was signed in a rail car in the forest of Compiegne, east of Paris, at 5 a.m. on a cold morning in 1918. It became effective six hours later — at 11 a.m. local time — and was for a period of 30 days, subsequently renewed many times. It represented a “ragged” peace, made even more so because the final peace treaty was not actually negotiated and agreed upon by all parties to the Great War until June of the following year.

The day was originally known as Armistice Day, and it is celebrated in France and other European nations as well as in Canada and the United Kingdom, where it is also known as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day.

The world was ready for peace. Unfortunately, the peace that seemed so hard won did not last all that long. And there have been, since then, far too few moments of worldwide peace. Perhaps all the more reason to remember those who serve daily in our armed services.

Veterans Day Flag Ceremony - Photo by Loren Javler via Flickr
Veterans Day Flag Ceremony – Photo (2009) by Loren Javler via Flickr

Veterans Day is more than a day to honor the dead — that occurs, in somber tribute, on Memorial Day in the spring. Veterans Day is, rather, the time to think of those who wear the uniform in both peace and war, those currently alive and those who served in the past. Because it falls just after election day, it is a good time to talk to children about the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, and to speak about patriotism and pride.

If you live in a city or town that has any sort of military museum, monument or memorial, November is a good month to visit, to think about the rights and privileges we all enjoy due to the continuing service of our service men and women. It gives us all a chance to think about history, and to forge the future that will become our legacy.