One of the unique aspects of the U.S. and its Armed Forces is the relationship. Historically, the American military has been a reflection of the society, with a small professional corps and the number of citizen-soldiers growing or declining based on need. With the advent of the cold war we moved from this to a large standing force, ready to defend the nation and serve as a tool of national power. What we are seeing today is the cost of that construct becoming unsupportable as we are engaged in conflict so complex that the simple application of military force is ineffective.
As a society, we have prided ourselves on the fact that an individual with determination, and talent, can rise from poverty to greatness unconstrained by a social class. Here too the military reflects that belief. While the majority of Generals now come from the established academies, just as in society they come from the Ivy League colleges, there is room for the exceptional to rise up and join them. We pride ourselves on these “everyman” success stories, where a young high school graduate joins the service as a private, seaman, or airman, and rises to the rank of General through hard work and excellence in all he or she does.
So we come now to Memorial Day where we remember the sacrifice of those who, in the words of Abraham Lincoln “gave the last full measure of devotion” in the defense of a vision founded in the belief that America was special and worth preserving. Originally known as Decoration Day, a time to mark the graves of Civil War soldiers, sailors and marines it has evolved, just as the nation has. It was fixed as the last Monday in May by the Congress in 1968 in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, and became a federal holiday.
It seems fitting on this day to reflect on the words of President Lincoln; I believe as true now as when he first spoke them.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Our young men and woman are still there as the human capital of this nation, we send them to distant lands to fulfill the promises of our government and if necessary to offer as payment of that promise their lives. It is up to us, the living, to remember those sacrifices and hold our leaders and ourselves accountable for them.
In his speech to the Sorbonne in 1910, Theodore Roosevelt spoke of “Citizenship in a Republic.” From that speech comes a favored quote that talks of the man in the arena who strives valiantly, who may come up short, but in the end knows either great triumph or if he fails, he fails while daring greatly. What is not often cited is, I believe, even more important.
“But if a man’s efficiency is not guided and regulated by a moral sense, then the more efficient he is the worse he is, the more dangerous to the body politic. Courage, intellect, all the masterful qualities, serve but to make a man more evil if they are merely used for that man’s own advancement, with brutal indifference to the rights of others.”
Those men and women who have sacrificed themselves so others may survive; or who have gone where this nation has sent them and done all it has asked of them have given this nation its future. It is up to us to remember them and strive to repay the debt.