My paternal grandfather drove an Army supply truck in France during World War II. My maternal grandfather was a flight instructor at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina. My dad’s dad, William Winkler Blackmore, born in 1919, was part of the first generation in his family that did not speak fluent German. My mom’s dad, George Wilson, born in 1923, spent the first three years of his life in Karuizawa, Japan, where his parents were stationed as Baptist missionaries. Both of my grandfathers volunteered for military service, choosing, like many men of their generation, to fight for their country in the Great War. Only one of them was asked to pledge his loyalty to his country — and against an enemy he had some ties to — before he service was accepted.
Ever since British colonists took up arms against the British army in 1775, Americans have been enamored with such stories: people fighting for the idea of America. From the Founding Fathers — who were British until they became Americans — to Buffalo Soldiers to Native American code-talkers to Muslim Americans fighting in the Middle East, the history books love a good story about “transcending race” or identity in order to protect the greater good of the nation. Of choosing country over self in order to make American great again. The notion that being American isn’t about race fuels ideals as profoundly democratic as the American Dream, and as misguided and damaging as Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism. And these stories about Great Americans who see past their own identities in times of conflict are, indeed, exceptional: They are the exception. And they’re often used to help mask the stories of other Americans — who have just as much a right to call themselves Americans — who are subjugated and abused for their race, language, or background.