Memorial Day: What Do We Owe?

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. (MAY 7, 2004) — Pall bearers carry the casket of DC3 Nathan Bruckenthal during his interment ceremony, as his wife Patti Bruckenthal follows. Bruckenthal was the first Coast Guard casualty in Operation Iraqi Freedom. USCG photo by PA1 Sarah Foster-Snell

I am honored to be the speaker at this year’s Memorial Day service for our area. This is the text of my speech:

Friends, neighbors, and fellow veterans, thank you for joining us here today, for taking a moment to remember and honor the men and women who have died in service to our country.

Since 1789, every soldier and sailor has taken the following oath upon enlistment:

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true fath and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.So help me God.

This oath has no expiration date.This oath does not have an escape clause.This oath is the same for everybody – there is not a separate oath for people of different ethnic groups, gender, or religious faith.It is the same oath whether you are active duty or reserve, whether you are Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine, or Navy.Commissioned officers will take a subsequent oath with some additional language, but every officer first took this oath as he or she entered the Academy, Officer Candidate School, or Reserve Officer Training.This oath unites all who swear it in a common cause; for many, it will be the first time they have sworn an allegiance to something greater than themselves.By taking this oath, today’s newest recruit takes his place in the long green, khaki, and blue line stretching back to the founding of this country.

Memorial Day is an occasion to remember men and women who have died in service to their country.But it seems false not to acknowledge that on this Memorial Day, 2007 that the present war in the Middle East lays heavy on our hearts and consciences.Many of the servicemen and women serving today were teenagers on 9/11.Some of them still are.Yet, they have taken the oath.

Where were you on 9/11?As you saw those airlines crash into the WorldTradeCenter and the Pentagon, were you thankful that you were not aboard?Or did some part of you say, “I wish I could have been there.Maybe I could have helped.” For the men and women I have served with, and I suspect that for many who have answered the call to service since 9/11, they would say, “I want to be there – wherever “there” is.I can help.”It is implied in our oath.

oWhat makes a man take over the machine gun of a disabled armored personnel carrier, in an exposed position, to hold off over 100 attackers for over 15 minutes, expending over 300 rounds until the enemy withdraws?Sergeant First Class Paul Smith did, on April 4, 2003.Mortally wounded, he saved the lives of at least 100 lightly armed American soldiers beyond his position.For this, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

oWhat makes a man leave his covered position during an ambush, maneuver through gunfire, and kick open a door to confront the attackers – as Marine Sgt David Wimberg did on 25 May, 2005?His actions broke the momentum of the ambush, and saved the lives of many other marines.He was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.

oFor that matter, what gives a soldier or sailor the grit to daily carry out his orders, knowing that even a routine convoy or escort is perilous? Army private Amy Soenksen went out on a convoy mission just 27 days ago, and died when an IED exploded against her vehicle.

The answer is both simple and complicated:They took an oath.It’s about Duty, Honor, and Country.

The great Oliver Wendell Holmes, himself a Civil War veteran, wrote these words in 1895 – but could have just as well been written today:

“Who is there who would not like to be thought a gentleman (or a lady)? Yet what has that name been built on but the soldier’s choice of honor rather than life? To be a soldier or descended from soldiers, in time of peace to be ready to give one’s life rather than suffer disgrace, that is what the word has meant; and if we try to claim it at less cost than a splendid carelessness for life, we are trying to steal the good will without the responsibilities of the place. We will not dispute about tastes. The man of the future may want something different. But who of us could endure a world, although cut up into five-acre lots, and having no man upon it who was not well fed and well housed, (…who could endure it) without the divine folly of honor, without the senseless passion for knowledge outreaching the flaming bounds of the possible, without ideals the essence of which is that they can never be achieved? I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”

Honorable soldiers and sailors understand this, even if they might not use such high sounding words. Sergeant
Smith, Sergeant Wimburg, and PFC Soenkson would probably tell you that they took their actions because it was their job, that they were in the best position to take that action, that if they did not do it someone else would have to.They did not want to fail their brothers and sisters in arms.

What do we owe to the men and women of such honor – what have they purchased through their blood?We owe them our own honor; we must fulfill our own duty.Behind every scheme to make the world over, lies the question, “What kind of world do you want?”That means we must understand more about threats to our national security than we do about the drunken antics of a few forgettable celebrities.We must care more about discovering the best ways to share the fruits of freedom, human rights, and – yes – democracy than we do about who is the next American Idol.

Fascism is spreading, again, on a scale unseen since the 1930’s.Violations of human dignity and decency and acts of genocide — things about which we said, “never again” — are happening again.What is to be done about it? Reasonable people may disagree – and in a democracy that disagreement can get loud.Our enemies interpret that as a weakness; we know it is a fundamental element of our citizenship.If there is a danger, it is that it is too easy to let others do the thinking, to fall prey to emotion over reason, to seek entertainment rather than knowledge.We owe it to those who have sacrificed all to inform ourselves, to seek truth, to debate, to think through the consequences….and to spill our national treasure wisely.

In the novel Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield wrote of the Spartan society and ethics that led to the stand of the 300 at Thermoplyae. This was an act of courage that lights our way thousands of years later, for that stand saved Greece, and science, and reason, and with it the West and all that we have accomplished.

Regarding the source of that courage, Pressfield writes of an aged slave, who is trying to convince an orphaned boy in his care not to run off and attempt to live alone in the wild:

“This was the only time I saw Bruxieus truly, physically angry. He seized me by both shoulders and shook me violently, commanding me to face him. “Listen to me boy. Only gods and heroes can be brave in isolation. A man may call upon courage only one way, in the ranks with his brothers-in-arms, in the line of his tribe and his city. Most piteous of all states under heaven is that of a man alone, bereft of the gods of his home and his polis. A man without a city is not a man. He is a shadow, a shell, a joke and a mockery. That is what you have become now, my poor Xeo. No one may expect valor from one cast out alone, cut off from the gods of his home.”

Citizens of Greece, this is our duty and our honor – to remember the fallen, to bind up the wounded, to care for the survivors, to engage in our democracy. Above all, we must not abandon our troops to our disinterest or discord.There is no Greece without Sparta. There is no Sparta without honor.

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