This was the Fourth of July for a Marine at Camp Pendleton: burgers and tacos, fortified wine, cruising Pacific Beach, learning but never perfecting the art of breaking a bottle on your head, bungee jumping from a crane, the Led Zeppelin laser light show at the museum, fireworks at the track in Del Mar. No pomp and circumstance, thank God, and no uniform.
I take four days of the year to remember my service and the continuing service of my friends: Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, the Marine Corps's Birthday and St. Barbara's Day. (Poor beautiful St. Barbara, beheaded by her father, whose patronage includes artillery and hatmakers.)
But Independence Day marks not a victory in war, but a document that is at once a sweeping and thrilling declaration of right and a quibbling, paranoid, clunky recitation of complaint against the king. On that day we celebrate disloyalty, disrespect for the sovereign, the urge to heap abuse on the powerful, our shared distaste for tyrants and bullies, and the idea that there could be no true revolution until the polis—not the generals, not the privates, not the minutemen, not the backwoods guerrillas and sharpshooters—abandoned their government and risked everything. Our nation might have been defended by riflemen, but it wasn't created by them.
I am an American, I was made possible by an act of sedition, and I am of the somewhat eccentric belief that disloyalty, or at least the capacity for it, is the essential American quality. Keeping faith with the authors of the Declaration means keeping a tiny flame of disloyalty lit, ready to fan whenever anyone gets it in their head to become our sovereign.
I am a proud American, I am a creature risen from an evolution of wilderness men in flight from crowds, Christ-mad homesteaders, goldpanners, loggers, miners, worm farmers, schemers and suburban royalty. I could be nothing else. I love our flag, and because I love it, I'd burn it on principle.
On this Independence Day I owe no person my unquestioning loyalty, I pay no obeisance, I reserve the right to judge all things for myself. I will say whatever I want whenever I want whether it is here or on foreign soil, and if there are consequences so be it. I will ridicule the mob and the tyrant, I will not defer to the will of the many or the will of one. Majorities do not impress me, and neither does power.
I've sworn one oath in my life: to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. A direct descendant of the Declaration, the Constitution is the one thing that my fellow Marines owe allegiance to, the one thing that they left in our hands to guard while (in accordance with Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1) they went off to fight and to kill and to be wounded and to be lonely and to be hot and to be forgotten and to die. How did we do?
We have been weak and we have betrayed their trust. In the Marines we used to describe ignorance, passivity and weakness as the state of being fat, dumb and happy, which is to say bovine.
When I walk through the mall on Independence Day with the rest of the herd, it may cross my mind to wonder which of us could declare independence and mean it. I talk a good game, but I suspect at that point I'll put my head back down and follow, follow, follow until I am sated and safe.
Duncan Murrell lives and writes in Pittsboro. His essay "In the year of the storm: The topography of resurrection in New Orleans" appears in the July issue of Harper's Magazine.