Ask veterans if we should burn the flag

Someone from one side of my family or the other has fought in every major conflict in which this country has been involved from the Revolution to Vietnam. My father is a veteran. Three uncles were veterans, one being wounded during World War II. A cousin was wounded in Vietnam. My grandfather fought the Germans in North Africa and Sicily. My great-grandfather fought them in France in World War I.

I chose college over the service, but I was on the honor guard in the Boy Scouts. They taught me how to carry the flag, fold it, raise it, salute it - and destroy it if it became too tattered or ever touched the ground.

What I'm getting at is I take the flag seriously.

For years the ultimate symbol of liberty has been the subject of an ongoing debate between those who think we should be able to burn it in protest - an act the Supreme Court has said is free speech - and those who think we shouldn't because it is a sacred symbol of this country and the rights of free people.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for an amendment to the Constitution banning the burning of the American flag. Supporters say this year it actually stands a chance of passing the Senate as well. With ratification by 37 states it would become Constitutional law.

This resolution is nothing new. It is introduced by someone almost every year, and every year it renews the question: Should we be able to burn the American flag in protest?

Burning the flag always has been the ultimate irony to me: You are destroying the very symbol of the freedom that lets you protest. Supporters say it makes perfect sense - that it's the quintessential example of free speech. Those against believe it's an unforgivable affront to our country, our freedoms and the people who fought and died protecting both.

I know where I stand: It sickens me to watch someone burn the flag. But I hold free speech as precious as any right we have. A little part of me hears the quote most often attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

To burn or not? We elect our representatives to decide such things. But as we all know, they don't always do the job we elect them to do. And in this case, I think, many of them aren't qualified, nor for that matter, are many of us.

Only one group is qualified to answer this question definitively.

We should ask the veterans.

Any veteran who woke up to "reveille" and saluted the flag every morning. Any veteran who wore it on a patch on their sleeve or flew it from a truck, tank or ship or who had it painted on their aircraft. Any veteran who marched behind it, fought beneath it, carried it, cared for it, bled for it or raised it over foreign soil. Or domestic, for that matter.

And any veteran who draped it over the coffin of one of his buddies.

We should ask them all. We should go to the VFWs, the American Legions and the VA hospitals. We should let every veteran who served honorably, here or abroad, in combat or peace, decide the issue of flag burning. We should ask those in their 80s who stormed Normandy and those in their teens who stormed Baghdad.

We should ask men like Jacklyn "Luke" Lucas, a Marine who jumped on two - yes, two - grenades on Iwo Jima. Despite his wounds, Lucas is still alive. We should ask him.

We should ask Hiroshi Miyamura, who killed at least 50 enemy soldiers in Korea while covering the withdrawal of his U.S. Army unit before being severely wounded and captured. He spent two years in a prison camp. He's still alive. We should ask him.

Or Freeman Horner, who charged headlong into German machine gun fire, or Ronald Ray, who shielded his men from a grenade and machine gun fire with his body in Vietnam. They're alive. Ask them.

Ask everyone that wore the uniform. If they say they protected our freedom and we should be free to burn the flag, then let's forget this proposed amendment.

But if they say no, it cost too much, it means too much, we bled too much, don't desecrate it, don't dishonor it, then let's pass this amendment quickly.

I think it's up to them alone, because you shouldn't tell anyone they can or can't burn the flag unless you spent time defending it.

Nate McCullough is the copy desk chief for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com