July 4th, 2020 from a foreign veteran’s perspective

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Full disclosure, I’m only half-foreign. I grew up in Greece, birthplace of feta cheese, bacchanalian orgies and democracy, then came to the U.S. when I was nineteen to serve in the world’s finest Navy. Twelve years later — two of them spent here at Stanford — I still feel fresh off the boat, like I keep waking up in a world I thought I knew but that has endless capacity to surprise me. Still, every year around this time, my Stanford friends ask me how I feel about the Fourth of July, given [insert whatever America is screwing up this year].

Last year I wrote: “July 4th is Independence Day — the day a bunch of ragtag vagabonds stood up and said ‘We’re not gonna take it’ to a bunch of assholes who were taking advantage of them. It was the sputtering, blue-in-the-face, choking-on-its-own-phlegm birth of a baby country that wouldn’t take its first real steps for another century.” But what about now?

A cop kneels on an unarmed person’s neck for almost nine minutes. I’m told American police started as slave patrols. Oh, and disproportionate numbers of Black men are in jail or have violent contact with the law, not to mention real estate redlining, school resource inequality and the ever-present fear my Black friends have to endure just walking around. And by the way, James Byrd Jr. was dragged for three miles down an asphalt road then dropped off, missing his head and one arm, in front of his church in 1998, in my lifetime. A Black man was publicly lynched in my lifetime.

And I want it to be simple. I want to scream Black Lives Matter from the rooftops, but I can’t anymore without an implied call to defund the police. And the people who say “defund the police” mean it. Abolish, they say. Abolish Now. But that’s absurd when I think of the truly lawless places I’ve been, where punishment for disobedience is finding your youngest child on your doorstep, roasted on a tray of vegetables (which happened to a local farmer while I was in Afghanistan). And of course first responders should have mental health and social work capabilities, but even an EMT can’t respond to a domestic, sexual, or criminal violence call, even in its aftermath, without first securing the scene, which involves an armed — that is, some form of state-sanctioned police — escort.

“More people shot last night,” my buddy’s mom tells me, clicking her lips. I can’t tell if it’s more frequent than on deployment when we’d hear that a Marine stepped on an I.E.D. or got swiss-cheesed by a PKM, or some convoy got ambushed. And we’d hold our desert memorial with the battlefield cross, cry our tears, steady our resolve and go back to work, back to gear prep, back to patrol, back to danger.

And I have to admit, it’s been a while since I’ve been in real danger. I’ve almost forgotten how a wall feels when it’s pummelled with bullets or how your chest shudders from an explosion close enough to make your ears ring. And every time I hear the media scream “unarmed person, unarmed person,” I also hear them ignoring that the average person can close ten feet in under 1.7 seconds, which is less than it takes you to change magazines, but more than it takes you to draw your pistol. And it’s hard to ignore the damage an “unarmed person” can do to you if they’re trying to rip out your eyeballs or stomp your kneecaps while you’re still trying to taze them.

I want to take a stand, side with a position, but it’s hard to make sense of the United States’ 200 years of slavery, segregation and institutional oppression, alongside international policy, macro and microeconomics and the threat that major foreign powers pose. One side claims to be advocating for citizens’ rights while the other rallies against external danger, but both are hard to trust, and it’s starting to look like we have to choose between a leftist welfare state or conservative authoritarianism.

This is where the Greek part comes in:

When the Persian King Xerxes said he would “Come and conquer the Hellenes in a morning stroll,” Demaratus, an exiled Spartan King replied: “Careful, my Lord, because while the cities of Hellas may be many, when the stranger comes they will bind together like a tight fist.”

“Why?” asked Xerxes, and Demaratus replied:

“For their common belief, common faith, common blood, common tongue.”

We don’t quite have that. 

Some of our ancestors came as indentured servants, some as slaves, most as washouts from our countries of origin, countries which are literally everywhere on the globe. We believe in Jesus or Allah or the Flying Spaghetti Monster; we speak English, Spanish or Jay-Z lyrics. 

But despite all our differences, we do have one common belief: rebellion. 

And we have a long history of revolting. In 1903, Mother Jones led a children’s march from Kensington, Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York, with banners demanding “We want to go to school and not the mines.” There’s the 1930’s march on Washington when WWI combat veterans were driven away by General Douglas MacArthur’s cavalry and tanks. Some were shot and killed. And of course there’s the 1963 Great March for civil rights when 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

This, to me, is the essence of Independence Day. It’s the resolve, deep down in our cores, that America is not this static thing passed down from generations of tyranny but a malleable community that we are responsible for shaping.

Of course we need to grow. Of course we need to change. A lot. We’re just getting past our puberty on a historical scale, just starting to clear up from our acne, our moodiness and violent tendencies and still having to live with their scars. But through it all we have to believe that this “social experiment” has not failed — it’s just getting started, that just because we were fucked up in the past doesn’t mean we always will be; that there is a Nation that lives up to its ideals and is within our reach.

But we have to stand united.

In 1962, James Baldwin wrote, “Everything now… is in our hands… If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

And with this power of rebellion, this ability of the people to shape their Nation, we have to, each in our own way, believe in the United States of America.

Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu

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Nestor was born in Bangladesh and raised mostly in Greece. When he was nineteen he moved to the United States to join the Navy, where he served for ten years. He is now a junior at Stanford University, where he is rumored to be the only person in the math department with cut-off t-shirt sleeves. He also dabbles in creative writing.