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On July 4, recall disaster along with the glory

We must remind ourselves that we are not a great nation because we never screwed up. But rather, America survives its blunders, blunders that are typically forgotten.

Fireworks over the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol.
Huge crowds have gathered for years on the National Mall to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. But this year, President Trump has decided to give a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, while rebranding the event a “Salute to America.”
Getty

Happy Fourth of July, in advance. On Thursday you’ll be picnicking, parade-watching, ooohing at fireworks, maybe setting off a few, carefully. If I’m going to get a word in, best do it now, so we can all kick back, relax and celebrate our beloved country’s glorious past and bright future.

Her troubled present, maybe not so much. Independence Day, the third in the Trump administration. The twist this year is the president is hijacking the celebration in our nation’s capital and turning it into — what else? — a glorification of himself.

And adding his own personal flourish: tanks.

American tanks, one hopes. The participation of tanks in patriotic spectaculars is really more of a Russian thing — those May Day parades with perfect ranks of goose-stepping troops, plus tanks and missile carriers rumbling past the generals on the reviewing stand.

Oh, Trump has ordered up generals, too, and commanded them to stand beside him. Maybe next year he’ll include gymnasts twirling ribbons on sticks.

Grim stuff. But maybe we can find reason for hope instead of despair. But how? I could point out that there might only be one July 4 left n the Trump administration.

Or five.

Hard to say.

It’s a holiday, almost. Let’s be optimistic. One, then. I’ll put out the flag, as a patriotic American. It is still a great country, despite all those determined to make the country “great again” by betraying its every value.

Remember: We’ve had grimmer Fourths; four when our nation was divided by Civil War. It’s odd, to take comfort in low points of our history, but the present is so very, well, present, it tends to warp our perspective.

It’s been worse. We must remind ourselves that we are not a great nation because we never screwed up. But rather, America survives its blunders, blunders that are typically forgotten. Take the event we celebrate, the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. No need to torment ourselves with those stirring words, words that ring hollow in a nation running concentration camps for children at its border.

Let us instead consider the month after the big event: August, 1776. Recall the first major battle of the Revolutionary War after the signing of the Declaration, which was — any idea? No? Do they teach you kids nothing? The Battle of Long Island. While our Founding Fathers were busy debating, the British were moving their forces into place to seize New York: 32,000 British redcoats and Hessian mercenaries, plus 13,000 sailors and 2,000 marines on 30 warships. The entire population of New York was only 28,000 people, and of those, more were signing up to fight for the British than for the Continental army.

George Washington, who had never led troops in a major battle, alternated between dithering and blundering. He underestimated the force he was facing, triple the size of his. He divided his army. He let the British outflank him. When attacked, many of his soldiers panicked, suffering 20% killed or captured, including three generals.

After defeat, Washington refused to accept reality and lingered, which historians called “militarily inexplicable and tactically suicidal.” Only the arrogance and delay of the British kept Washington’s army from being annihilated.

What’s the moral here? That the unease verging on despair that any true patriot feels in 2019 is hardly new in American history.

”If every nerve is not strained to recruit a new army,” Washington wrote, “I think the game is pretty well up.” But he toughed it out — his evacuation of New York was masterful, and he would become a seasoned practitioner of retreat, losing six of the nine major battles he fought.

While Washington’s army crept away, others held firm.

”The panic may seize whom it will,” Adams wrote, when a man arrived with horses assuming he would flee. “It will not seize me.”

Like optimism, endurance is an American trait. The Revolutionary War stretched over eight and half years. The Trump administration can last only eight. One hopes. After the stunning defeat caused in part by his own ineptness, Washington wrote: “Now is the time for every man to exert himself and make our country glorious or become contemptible.”

That choice is as relevant today as it was 243 years ago. Stand your ground until you can’t, then withdraw to fight another day. Happy 4th of July.