I write this the day after Veterans Day - and, for various reasons, service has been on my mind lately. Last week, I co-taught a class on facilitating civil discussion with visiting retired Major-General Edward Dornan, a 1983 graduate of Tennessee Tech. He asked how many of the students present had considered pursuing public service and pointed out that there were many ways to do so without donning a military uniform. There was one half-raised hand. This motivated me to talk briefly about a subject dear to my heart, republicanism, a theme I will return to soon.
Another service-related thing that got me thinking was seeing a Nashville news station interview with my dear friend, Jim Sutcliffe (age 101), decorated World War II veteran and German POW camp survivor. Jim’s story, which many of you know, is inspiring. It made me think of several other World War II vets I’ve been privileged to know and whom we’ve lost in the past few years. These were men (and there were plenty of women, too) who were willing to put their lives on hold for years and to risk losing those lives or suffering horrible injury to protect democracy from the threat of fascism.
My father and all three of his brothers served in uniform during the Vietnam era. They all survived, but the two who saw combat were deeply scarred by it. I did not follow that tradition (though many of my good friends from high school did); when I was a senior my goal was to do preaching and mission work. And I did, full-time, for three years - a little of it here in White County but also in South Florida and New York City, serving in French-speaking congregations and working with Haitian immigrants. Neither South Florida nor New York City were very safe places in the ‘80s (heck, for that matter, neither was White County). Despite the fact I was carrying a Bible instead of a gun, my life was legitimately threatened on several occasions. I’ve stared down the barrels of guns multiple times. I’ve walked into drug deals and stumbled onto murder scenes. I did it out of a sense of duty to God and love for neighbor. So, though I did not serve in uniform, I served… and am much the better for it.
Back to republicanism, with a small “r.” That is the principle espoused by the founding generation - that a representative democratic republic cannot survive unless its citizens have civic virtue - unless they are willing to shoulder burdens that are onerous to them, but which must be done, for the greater good of the community. To provide for the general defense and promote the general welfare… in order to form a more perfect union.
And then I think of the man many Americans chose to be their president and are seeking to return to that office, Donald Trump - a man who has never done anything that did not immediately and profoundly benefit himself. A man who has referred to our honored military dead as losers, to those who have served in uniform as saps. Who did not want to have grievously wounded veterans messing up his photo ops and making him look bad. Who did not want to honor fallen World War II heroes because of a little rain and pouted about it. And I wonder what has happened to the Republican Party.
I never fully agreed with many of the precepts of conservatism - but there were conservative politicians I respected and trusted to be good people and to have the greater good of the country foremost in mind, even if I disagreed with them about how. But it is now the Party of Trump - of selfishness, ego, and vanity. They never encourage you to help people - only to jealously guard your own benefit. They barely even give lip service anymore to Jesus and all the things he said were important.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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