Civic Virtue and Other Habits
By Jan C. Scruggs
The Education Center at The Wall will serve many purposes for our society. Working together with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Education Center will be a place where visitors can have a profound learning experience rooted in the idea of service. The exhibits will celebrate those who have risked their lives in the American legacy of service that began in
1775 at Concord Bridge and continues today with a small number of Americans in Afghanistan. With a primary focus on the Americans who served during the war in Vietnam, and through displays of some of the items left at The Wall, visitors will better understand the values shown by those who were willing to serve during a difficult time and in a war that remains controversial, values like duty, integrity, citizenship and honor. These are values that need to be honored by our society. What better place could there be for people to learn and remember their fellow citizens?
When we began discussing the focus of the Center, some very big ideas started to emerge. Primary among them was the idea of using the unselfish service of the Vietnam veterans in order to encourage service to local communities. After all, nearly three million served in the war zone, and a total of nine million were on active duty, each assuming the risk of ending up in a foxhole in Vietnam or elsewhere. Each risked their life for their fellow citizens after being drafted or volunteering for active duty. This sacrifice is pure civic virtue. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher who studied the American character, called civic virtue “habits of the heart.” That is, a commitment to democratic principles and shared values manifesting itself in the behavior of citizens. Many have written about civic virtue. From the time of the ancient Greeks, there has been discussion of how societies need to foster good behavior and hold out as examples people who do good works.
One recent example is Capt. Nathan Nylander. In 2012, he stood his ground against an Afghan Air Force pilot who opened fire on the air command and control center at Kabul International Airport. Capt. Nylander could have run for cover but instead he chose to engage the Afghan pilot using only a 9mm pistol. After being shot twice, he continued firing at the pilot and wounded the attacker. When Capt. Nylander’s pistol jammed, he was finally killed. Capt. Nylander, a USAF meteorologist, could have played it safe. Instead he chose to save as many lives as he could. Although he and seven other Americans were killed, he kept many others alive by staying to fight, even with an inadequate weapon.
On a wall in the rear of the Center will be a software-driven display showing photos of the over 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in Vietnam. There will also be photos of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan; People like Capt. Nylander. This will be a thank you to them. People like this deserve appreciation. Their service, we hope, can motivate others to do acts of civic virtue in their own communities. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “The men and women who have the right ideals … are those who have the courage to strive for the happiness which comes only with labor and effort and self-sacrifice, and those whose joy in life springs in part from power of work and sense of duty.”
In November, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, entertainer Jimmy Buffett, and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden joined us for a ceremonial ground breaking at the future site of the Center. But their support isn’t enough. For now, we are in a race against the clock to have the Education Center built by 2014, when our troops
return from Afghanistan. This is important for America, as we come to grips with our decade plus at war and find ways to thank those who have done the fighting. This will be the start of the appreciation for each of those who have served and who are serving.
There are many ways that you can do your civic duty. Hundreds of thousands of men and women who came before us gave the ultimate sacrifice for this country; many continue to do so. But if military service is not your path in life, I urge to still give. Give your thanks to men and women who came home. Give your prayers and gratitude to those who never did. Give your time to your community. Pay attention to the names on The Wall, and the names on the news. Join us in our mission to bring attention to American heroes, to keep their memories alive in thought. We hope to see you join our cause in 2013, and then to see you walk through the doors of the Education Center at The Wall in 2014.