OK, I'll admit it: Usually on the Fourth of July I think more about what's cooking on the grill and how inviting the water is than I ponder the deep meaning of American patriotism. But this July 4th was very different.

This year, instead of going to the beach, which I have done most of my 50-plus years, my family went to Big Bear Lake for a day of sun, swimming, food and fireworks. With 110-degree weather in the Victor Valley, Big Bear's 95 degrees seemed relatively pleasant. Not surprisingly, we spent ample time in the water, frolicking near the shore and later taking the inflatable kayak out for a relaxed lake jaunt.

We didn't bring our small Weber, so we picked up some burgers (only my second this year) and enjoyed a scenic picnic on blankets at a park. As the sun was setting, the hoards began arriving to see the fireworks, which would start at 9 p.m.

When the fireworks began, someone played patriotic songs on a boom box that were broadcast by a local radio station. Hearing the words and seeing the beautiful fireworks, I began to think of the stark contrast between the realities of 1814, when Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner," and 2007, a time when our country is waging a distant war against a people we clearly don't understand.

With each colorful explosion over a calm resort lake I was reminded that real-life explosions were killing American soldiers and innocent Iraqi civilians in a country our President sought to attack based on faulty intelligence information. With each loud bang, I thought about what a different space our country's mindset is today compared to 1776 when on that July 4th we celebrated independence from a repressive Great Britain. With the razzle-dazzle in the mountain skies, I thought about the sad irony of how our country set out to dismantle a faraway sovereign nation, one of the rare times in our country's history where we have invaded a nation without provocation. With each fireworks explosion, my patriotism turned to sadness.

(I know what many reading this are thinking: Oh, he's just a typical liberal, anti-war journalist. You are certainly entitled to your view, but I don't think that's an accurate description. Growing up in a staunch Republican household, Richard Nixon was the first president I voted for. Later, I would vote for Ronald Reagan.)

For me, and probably many others, the defining moment in 2003 was when Colin Powell, then U.S. Secretary of State, presented his argument for going into Iraq. At that moment, our nation said, "OK. Let's go."

While our first goal was to prevent a dictator, Saddam Hussein, from using weapons of mass destruction against us, the bigger task is to somehow give independence to a largely demoralized citizenry in a country in ruins. Figuring out how to accomplish that is a daunting task.

And it's one that George Washington almost certainly wouldn't have chosen to tackle in the first place.