Today is Memorial Day, the traditional start of summer, a day for cookouts, shopping, or a trip to the beach. I don't want to put a damper on any of that, but with America ten years into its longest war, I am going to take a few moments to focus attention on the origins and purpose of this American holiday. I am going to wave the flag, and express pride in my own service as well as that of my millions of fellow veterans. I am not going to challenge or belittle the views of anyone who doesn't share my opinions. There is a time and place for that; it is not here, not today.
"The core of our defense is the faith we have in the institutions we defend."
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the young United States steeled itself to confront the single most divisive issue in its short lifetime. That issue was human slavery, an institution so ugly as to have left hard feelings that today, 146 years after the fact, can erupt into personal violence at the dropping of one simple word. Politicians of the day, as they continue to do in our own time, tried to muddy the water and complicate the issue, cloaking it in dissertations about states' rights, and the sanctity of a man's "property," but it was about one thing. Then, as now, people were smarter than their politicians gave them credit for, and the war over slavery consumed over 600,000 young lives to decide whether the "liberty and justice for all" on which this nation was founded was to include people other than Caucasians in those soaring words.
Following that great conflagration, the victorious Federal Government sought a means to reunite the country in ties of the spirit, and remind us that we were Americans all. The South, the portion of the nation that had sought to break away and keep its slaves, had long had a springtime tradition in which the population of a town would declare a day to meet at the local cemetery and clean the place up; pull the weeds, polish the headstones, put out flags and flowers, in short decorate their loved ones' final resting place. The people marched to the cemetery in an informal parade, and when the work was done, there were religious services, picnics on the grass, and maybe sometimes a performance of patriotic music by local musicians. The people called it Decoration Day, and Washington saw this as a day to engage everyone in the country in a unifying honoring of those who had died for their country. A date was fixed (each town had chosen its own before), and the whole nation was decorated in its patriotic finery. The date has floated around the spring, currently being observed on the last Monday in May, and the name has become Memorial Day, but this is what it is about.
"To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."
- George Washington
Americans, north and south, were forced to bring forth those huge Civil War armies virtually from scratch, and the fact that both sides found no shortage of men to march shoulder to shoulder into the meat grinder that was a Civil War era defensive position is testament to what happens when your enemy believes that you lack the courage or fortitude to stand up to him. Northerners saw their southern adversaries as a mob of hillbillies who could no more be disciplined than a pack of apes, and southerners looked on their northern opponents as greedy shopkeepers and destitute immigrants whose only interest was making money, and who had no idea which end of a gun the bullet came out of. Driven by such institutionalized ignorance, they went on to rack up, in four years of war, a death toll that to this day surpasses American deaths suffered in all our other wars combined!
Appalled by the prospect of having every home in America with a family member lost to war, we were quick to beat the swords into plowshares. I'm not saying this is bad in and of itself, but every war that we have been drawn into since has been caused by some tyrant, dictator, despot, or fanatic overlooking, dismissing, or simply mistaking America for a nation of lazy consumers who lack the moral fortitude to defend our way of life if it means setting aside our comfy lifestyle for the hardships of a soldier. Every time it has happened, against the colonial powers of old Europe, against Germany (twice), against Japan, against petty dictators in nothing countries who despise our values, and against the great bogeyman of Communist Domination of the World, we have done what we needed to do, then quickly thrown away our swords and gotten back to business. Upon which it happens again. It happened most recently on a clear fall morning in 2001. Welcome to the new century; same as the old century.
"For those who fight for it, freedom has a flavor the sheltered never know."
- Anonymous (scrawled on a bunker at Khe Sanh)
This is a quote from my war, and it seems somehow fitting that its author is unknown. I came home, a proud veteran, to a nation that wanted to forget me, to wealthy friends who enjoyed that wealth because they were protected by the might of America, and who shunned me for my service, my defense of them, as I saw it. I came home to pretty girls who would feign interest, only to ask me how many babies I had murdered in Viet Nam (None, for the record). I came back to self-serving politicians who threw me and my fellow vets under the bus when their war proved unpopular, and I took great pride in saying that I never voted for one of the sons-of-bitches. The lowest, vilest example was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the architect of the whole Viet Nam debacle, who wrote in his memoirs that the reason we lost in Viet Nam was that we didn't send our best and brightest. He should have gotten a medal from the Hanoi government after that statement. I gave up on voting, performing charitable activities, withdrew from mainstream society and became essentially an urban hermit. This was my own form of PTSD, and it had nothing to do with combat. It was the way I was treated by those who created the situation and put us all into it.
Then came 9/11. Thank you, Osama bin Laden, for reminding me who I am. Since that day, I have been an American patriot. I take an interest in my country, how it operates, who's doing what to whom, and I've never since that day missed an election. I only regret that it took several thousand dead Americans to remind me.
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
- Edmund Blake (attributed, but unproven)
A fine sentiment, nonetheless. Good Americans stood up and gave their lives when the Kaiser would have unified Europe under his personal tyranny. Good Americans stood up and gave their lives when Tojo's minions would have enslaved all of Asia. Good Americans stood up and gave their lives when Hitler would have slaughtered every Jew on Earth. Good Americans stood up and gave their lives when Communism would have turned the world into the great workers' paradise. Good Americans are standing up now to face a chilling form of extremism that would replace free expression the world over with a form of religious despotism that prescribes death for holding a personal opinion at odds with their interpretation of the Koran.
Let me clarify my views here. I have heard my country called an oppressor, an imperialist power, a taker from the weak, a partner to the haves. Let's get this crystal clear once and for all: There are worse things to build empires upon than the concepts of justice and equality, and worse causes to fight in than that of freedom. This world, so much of which hates and reviles us, owes America, and Americans, more than anyone could ever dream of repaying. Every Jew who is alive today because armed and determined Americans a long way from home prevented Satan-on-Earth from pushing his parents into a gas chamber, every Asian farmer who doesn't have to send all his rice to Tokyo, every Frenchman who looks around his beautiful country and notes the lack of swastikas on every wall and flagpole, owes daily thanks to hundreds of thousands of Americans who have put aside their comfortable lives of easy living, cheap entertainment, good plentiful food, readily available recreation, and taken up arms, allowing themselves to be formed into a force of liberty for the world, again, and again, and again. If you live in a place where you are reading these words without the fear of someone kicking your door down and hauling you off to a concentration camp for reading them, pray that we never get tired of it.
"God grants liberty only to those who love it, and are always ready to guard and defend it."
- Daniel Webster
Thank you, American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Today is technically set aside to honor those who have given their lives, and I certainly do that, but as a Viet Nam veteran, I never want to see another young American come home to the reception that my generation received. Not after going through what you are asked to endure every day in the service of America. Thank you all, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, black, white, and every shade between. I am able to sit here and type these words without worrying about being jailed because of your sacrifices, and I don't want one of you to ever think for one minute that what you are doing is not appreciated.
"In the final choice, a soldier's pack is not so heavy a burden as a prisoner's chains."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
The rest of the title, of course, is "If you love freedom, thank a veteran." Thank you, thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for the rest of my days, THANK YOU!