Patriotism isn't measured by a 1,776 foot flagpole

American flag (Getty images)
American flag (Getty images)

There is a scene in the 15th season of "The Simpsons" where the family visits a store in Springfield called “Things Unnecessary,” a shop specialized in selling shamelessly extravagant, overpriced merchandise to people who cannot afford it. When happening upon a talking astrolabe that he quickly purchases, Homer exclaims in delight: “Oh God! It’s so unnecessary!”

I was instantly reminded of this moment when I read about plans from the non-profit Wreaths Across America to construct the world’s tallest flagpole in rural Maine in honor of America’s veterans.

The project is truly ambitious. The “Flagpole of Freedom Park” site in Columbia Falls would host two observation decks and a museum. Organizers claim it will be the only spot in the United States to honor all 24 million American military veterans with 55 individual remembrance walls surrounding the pole containing the names of every single veteran in U.S. history.

The price tag: $1 billion.

I recognize the value of memorials. Anyone who has visited the Vietnam War Memorial knows how arresting the somber simplicity of that list of names is — a national receipt for the horror of that misbegotten adventure. But while the plans for the new memorial certainly draw their inspiration from the Vietnam wall, they do so while annihilating the sober minimalism that makes the original so striking.  The entire plan is a masterstroke of ostentatiousness. Even the precise height of the flagpole, 1,776 feet — corresponding the year of the country’s founding — hits with the subtlety of a fireworks display.

I have no doubt that the planners of this memorial have the best of intentions, but the scope and extravagance of the project belie precisely how shallow and superficial most Americans’ idea of patriotism is.

In the milieu of our current culture wars, particularly on the right, any abrogation of protocol is spun as an affront to our women and men in uniform. Many Americans believe that clinging to the flag and other national symbols is synonymous with supporting those who have served. Most of us are happy to give the standing ovation to the sailor, soldier, airman, or Marine, trotted out before the coin toss, and then forget about them — as though public adulation can be a panacea for post-traumatic stress or a “Support our Troops” bumper sticker repairs lungs destroyed by burn-pit exposure. This is a child’s definition of patriotism.

Veterans suffer from greater rates of suicide and substance abuse than the general population. Even as veterans struggle to access necessary services, a proposed Department of Veterans Affairs realignment plans to shutter almost 200 outpatient clinics that vets in rural and urban areas rely on to access care. I would love to see the same resources and passion mustered to address these issues as are apparently available for the construction of an oversized flagpole or the booing of an NFL player who takes a knee during the national anthem.

I recognize that my objections to the aesthetics of the proposed monument are purely a matter of taste, but it is the scale of the resources Wreaths Across America and its partner donors and nonprofits plan to devote to the endeavor that make it a moral travesty.

The billion dollars reserved for this project would be better spent if used in almost any other way, from supporting increased access to limited behavioral health resources to furthering the gains made in recent decades in addressing veteran homelessness. For the same price tag, the organizers could send every one of the 1.4 million veterans living in poverty a check for $714. I wonder how many would prefer that to having their name carved on a remote memorial among 24 million others? I doubt anyone bothered to ask.

At least they do not make a pretense that they work towards materially improving the lives of veterans in any way.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, like so many public displays of patriotism — the first pitches and Zamboni rides that signal to fans that billionaire owners of their teams indeed do love the country whose tax dollars help build their stadiums — the purpose of this project really has nothing to do with veterans. Wreaths Across America states on their fundraising page for the park: “At the heart of this apolitical destination is a purpose-driven company whose core goal is to help build unity and pride for America.” At least they do not make a pretense that they work towards materially improving the lives of veterans in any way.

To those inclined to support those who have served, there is a huge list of charitable organizations that lobby on behalf of or provide direct support to our veterans that are far more worthy of your hard-earned money than an overpriced memorial.

To those heading up this project, it's time to reevaluate your priorities. And, please, leave my name off of your nationalist vanity project.

Editors' note: An earlier version of this essay included a math error. We regret the error and have corrected it.

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Headshot of Andrew Carleen

Andrew Carleen Cognoscenti contributor
Andrew Carleen is a former public affairs officer in the U.S. Navy who lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.



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