PURCELLVILLE, Va. — As is our custom, millions of Americans celebrated Independence Day this year with family, friends and neighbors. Here in Purcellville, there was an old-fashioned parade down Main Street, followed by a barbecue, a church service to pray for our nation — and fireworks. For many here in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, it was also day five without electricity — and very hot.
The hardships caused by last week’s powerful storms and power outages are real. More than a dozen of our countrymen have died. The oppressive temperatures remind me that nearly halfway around the world, tens of thousands of young Americans are experiencing heat and fireworks of a different kind — where our country’s enemies are trying to kill them.
Afghanistan isn’t the only place with a summer “fighting season.” It turns out that patriotic young Americans have spent many Independence Days fighting for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” ever since 56 of our Founding Fathers signed “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America” in Philadelphia 236 years ago.
Independence Day 1814 saw one of the few American victories in the War of 1812, at Fort Erie in Canada. The fort was returned to the British in November that year, shortly before the end of the war.
On Independence Day 1863, Americans learned that more than 50,000 of our countrymen had been killed and wounded in the previous three days of battle at Gettysburg. By nightfall of July 4, Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were retreating south in the Shenandoah Valley, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was accepting the surrender of Confederate troops at Vicksburg.
On July 4, 1917, the first wave of American “doughboys” were “moving to the sound of the guns,” having arrived in France a day earlier. By the time World War I ended in November 1918, more than 115,000 Americans were dead.
During World War II, the time around the Fourth of July was pivotal to Allied victory in both Europe and the Pacific. For the American troops who landed at Normandy less than a month earlier, Independence Day 1944 was marked by furious fighting in the hedgerows. The next year, Independence Day in the Pacific was celebrated with the liberation of Okinawa — and massive air raids by American B-29s on the Japanese home islands.
July 4, 1950, was anything but a celebration for U.S. troops hastily dispatched to Korea to help repel North Korean invaders. In a desperate “delaying action,” the ill-prepared Americans incurred staggering losses as they fell back on what came to be called the Pusan Perimeter.
For more than a decade starting in 1962, American soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines in the Republic of Vietnam observed our Independence Day in firefights that ranged from the demilitarized zone to the Mekong Delta. I spent the Fourth of July in 1969 in the field hospital at Dong Ha, visiting with several of my Marines wounded in an engagement a few days earlier.
In 2004, I spent July Fourth preparing to cover U.S. Marines battling al-Qaida insurgents for control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, Iraq. It was then the bloodiest place on earth and unbearably hot — but not much different in temperature, tactics or troops from what we have documented during other sweltering summers over the past decade in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Philippines and elsewhere in Mesopotamia.
All of these places and events are a powerful reminder of who we are and why we fight. We don’t deploy our sons and daughters around the world and place them in harm’s way for gold or oil or colonial conquest. Americans place themselves at great risk for an idea: freedom.
This year, I didn’t go off to cover a war in some far-off place. Instead, I was invited to read the Declaration of Independence — all 1,337 words — at a community prayer service at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church here in Purcellville. It, too, was a powerful experience.
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Those are potent words — from the only seminal document of any country on the planet to pay homage to Almighty God. No other founding document reflects on “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
And no other instrument of popular intent places the fate of its founders in the hand of God with words such as these: “For the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The 56 men who penned their signatures below those words inspired a new nation. God willing, we have not become so cynical and secular that we forget what made us the land of the free.