It’s Memorial Day, and we’re hearing the familiar reminders to “remember the fallen” and “honor the troops” today and all of that. It is often accompanied by pictures of Arlington National Cemetery, plain white headstones with flags next to them, and the like. Some mentions also make it a point to suggest you should financially support organizations designed to maintain memorials, or to help living veterans and their families.
Before anyone objects, let me say that this is not a bad thing. We need to remember fallen warriors, including those who didn’t count on dying that day. (The Navy guys who were asleep in their bunks aboard the USS Arizona during the Pearl Harbor attack, for example.) A lot of servicemen (and yes, women) died horrible and painful deaths in defense of our freedom. Some were wounded in combat and later died of their injuries. It was not always quick and easy for them. I will not elaborate on the many creative ways that enemies of our country have found to kill members of our military over the years.
While many of these service members were probably thinking about survival, their comrades-in-arms, or some combat objective at the time of death (as opposed to high American ideals of freedom, democracy, liberty, self-determination, etc) it can nonetheless be stated that all of them were lost in service to our country in one capacity or another…even those whose missions we never even heard about. I’m going to take it one step further and state that I think we should honor the memory of those who may have been engaged in morally questionable military activity at the time of death.
For example, everyone agrees that D-Day was the right thing to do; the My Lai massacre…not so much. But even those who were participating in such an atrocity still deserve to have their memory honored. As American citizens, we’re still obligated to honor even those who fought in campaigns and conflicts we don’t necessarily support.
I’ll try to get to my point. My only objection to the Memorial Day observances (the parades, the familiar Facebook posts, the blurbs to “remember the fallen” heard throughout the day on various media outlets) is that I think most of them don’t go far enough. I think, along with the reminders to remember the fallen, we need an additional message for the living:
Do not let their sacrifice be in vain.
What do I mean? Okay, did anyone see ‘Saving Private Ryan’? Reference the part near the end of the film, where Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) has been mortally wounded on the bridge, he’s speaking to Private Ryan (Matt Damon), and he says, “Earn this!” It was his last sentence, before succumbing to the injuries he’d just sustained in combat. Private Ryan, of course, survives the war and goes on to lead a long life. At the end of the film, he’s shown visiting Captain Miller’s grave…and he asks his wife to tell him he’s been a good husband, a good father over the years.
I don’t know if that scene actually happened or if it was the creation of some Hollywood screenwriter, but I think there is some wisdom in Captain Miller’s message. “Earn this!” His statement to Private Ryan was simple – don’t let my sacrifice, my death on this bridge, my dying at the hands of the German army we’re fighting – don’t let that be in vain. He was telling the private to lead a worthwhile life after the war, one which would be worthy of the sacrifice of brave men who fought and died. At least that’s what *I* got out of that scene.
What does that mean to us today – not letting the sacrifice of fallen warriors be in vain? I think it means not only to exercise the freedoms they bought and secured for us, but also to be vigilant against anyone who’d try to take them. “Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel,” warned Patrick Henry. Yeah, the “give me liberty or give me death” guy.
Our Founding Fathers made it abundantly clear that those who hold political power are mere men – corruptible, not to be trusted, ever seeking to impose tyranny on the rest of us. They made it clear, through their writings in various publications of the time (The Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution itself, personal letters, and others) that if our country is to remain free – or to have honest government – then the people themselves must be the ones to guarantee that. It means that one of the responsibilities of being an American citizen, is to hold one’s leaders accountable. It means demanding honest and transparent government that respects our rights.
Ben Franklin, for instance, on exiting the Constitutional Convention, was asked what sort of government he and his colleagues had designed, and he is reported to have said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” He meant that it was up to future generations to maintain what had been fought for during the Revolutionary War. It is also said that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” which has been variously attributed. Regardless of who said that, I think there’s a real nugget of truth there.
We simply don’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye to what’s happening to our country, trusting that our leaders know best, or telling ourselves that it’s all going to work out. History has counseled us that those who seek to aggrandize more power unto themselves always have nefarious reasons for doing so. Look no further than Hitler’s Germany for a rather strong example of what happens when people assume that their leaders have the peoples’ best interests at heart. The Russian Revolution of 1917 (which installed Lenin and his communist Bolsheviks in power) is another. Tyranny and destruction always follow such men.
This makes the president’s recent speech at Ohio State all the more disgusting:
Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.
A lot of people these days talk about rights of citizenship, but no discussion of rights is complete without a corresponding discussion of responsibilities.They go together. It’s two sides of the same coin.
The president’s foolish speech at Ohio State is exactly the sort of thing our Founders were warning us about. Imploring us to reject “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems” is an example of what to watch out for. On the contrary, this just the sort of rhetoric that engaged citizens need to reject. It should be dismissed by those American citizens who are cognizant of their responsibilities to fallen warriors, as well as to themselves and their posterity.
(Understand that I’m not quoting this in order to pick on Obama or other liberals – not today anyway. He simply happens to be the guy in power at the moment.)
I wrote on Facebook today that one way of not letting our military’s sacrifices be in vain, is to pay attention to what your government is doing and to hold your government leaders accountable. This means they should be hearing from us on a regular basis. It means we should be paying close attention and not relying on the media or political pundits to interpret events for us. It means we have a responsibility as American citizens to let our elected and appointed leaders know that they answer to us – that we made them, and we can break them…figuratively and politically speaking. It means that we can and will use our First Amendment rights on the Internet, at gathering places, in forums, at the ballot box, and in court to assert our will.
This is particularly important here in America, because of why our military members went to their deaths on land, sea, and air over the last couple of centuries. There’s a very important distinction to be made between our fallen service members, and those who fought for our enemies, for many other nations/states/empires of history, or for those who fight in the militaries of many foreign countries today.
What distinction is that? Freedom. Our military’s fallen were lost in defense of freedom. I don’t mean to suggest that your average GI at Bunker Hill, Shiloh, Somme, Guadalcanal, Inchon, Khe Sanh, Desert Storm, or Fallujah spent a lot of time thinking about our country’s ideals so much as simply staying alive, watching each other’s backs and getting the job done. I also don’t mean to suggest that whoever the enemy du jour happened to be necessarily thought of themselves as the bad guys (though most certainly were). I do, however, mean to suggest that pretty much all of them were ostensibly deployed in some capacity meant to assure that our nation and its ideals would continue to exist.
If any of those fallen warriors came back to life today, I’d like to be able to look them in the eye and tell them that we hadn’t squandered what they’d bequeathed us. They didn’t bleed just so we can sit on the couch today and watch our leaders give away the store.
Though very little military conflict actually took place on American soil during the 20th and 21st centuries, every time our military was sent overseas it was ostensibly done so in order to protect our interests, and to make sure that no rival power would be able to get into a position to threaten those ideals. Nobody in America wanted to see the British redcoats, the Nazis, the imperial Japanese, the Soviet communists / their allies, Al Queda, or anyone else in a position to assert a real threat to the continued survival of this country, its citizens, or to our way of life.
I happen to think this is important because the American experiment is a unique one in human history. Never before was a country founded from the very beginning on the concept of self-government. Though other countries have been run democratically to one extent or another, never before was a nation set upon a foundation that the people, and not their rulers, are sovereign. Every other republic throughout history to that point had placed limits upon the sovereignty of the people.
Today, there are dozens of countries in which attempting to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” (that’s from the First Amendment in our Constitution) is all it takes to get oneself and one’s entire family thrown into prison or worse. How well do you think letter-writing campaigns by citizens are tolerated today in North Korea, Iran, Cuba, or a long list of other places? How well do you think it was tolerated by Soviet Russia or by the Roman Empire for that matter? Do you think politicians in those places listened to the people and realized they’d better clean up their act…or were goon squads sent out to deal with “troublemakers” and other sources of dissent?
And I don’t think we here in America are immune to our country going down the same path. We are in trouble if we’re more concerned about “American Idol,” keeping up with the Kardashians, and this year’s Super Bowl…than we are with holding our leaders accountable and making sure that they know we aren’t going to tolerate any funny business. It means letting them know – frequently – that we’re happy to vote them out of office and/or use the power of the judiciary to hold them in check. This is absolutely critical to maintaining the rule of law, as opposed to the arbitrary rule of men.
This is not a partisan plea. This transcends Republican or Democratic politics. This has nothing to do with party. While there happens to be a Democrat-controlled administration in the White House at the moment, it’s just as important to be vigilant when the other side is in power…regardless of how you voted in the last election. In fact, it may be even more important when “your guys” are in, since they may be more apt to listen to you if they think they run the risk of losing your support for acting unwisely, illegally, unethically, or irresponsibly. Don’t tell yourself even for a minute that Congress, the President, the governor, the state Legislature, the mayor, the City Council, or the County Board of Supervisors don’t care what you think. If there’s one thing that politicians of every stripe and every level understand, it’s votes.
I assure you that if enough people get exercised about something, action will be taken, by the highest levels of American government. If the Benghazi, IRS, or Fast N Furious scandals were being taken seriously by voters of all stripes (instead of dismissed as a partisan witch hunt), we’d be getting some real answers about what went on in these cases, instead of stonewalling and “I can’t remember, I don’t recall” from the people who may have been involved.
If the Democrats in Congress – and their constituents back home – were demanding a real response from the Obama Administration, we’d get one. But that’s just it – the people who elected these politicians need to be leading the way. Ultimate blame for corruption, incompetence, or malfeasance in government rests with the people, who are sovereign. It’s been said that the American people may not necessarily get the government they deserve, but they will definitely get the worst one they’ll tolerate.
If one good thing came out of the Watergate scandal nearly forty years ago, it should be this: The American people will forgive incompetence and even dishonesty…but they have no patience for a cover-up.
I don’t mean to get off on a lot of finger-pointing; those were merely handy examples because they are current events as of this writing. Everything I’ve said here is also true of developments at the state or local level. I personally vote in every election, of course, and also contact my state Legislative officials from time to time to let them know what I think of their positions on my pet issues. I probably should be doing even more, but as everyone knows, there are only so many hours in the day, with a full time job and a family to attend to. Nonetheless, I consider it my responsibility as an American citizen to let my leaders know that I’m watching them, that I have a voice, and that I’m not afraid to use it. So should you.
I also am happy to let them assume that I speak for thousands of other citizens who couldn’t be bothered to pick up the phone or write a letter that day, but who nonetheless do vote…and who are paying attention to what’s being done with their tax dollars and with the power we’ve entrusted to them as public servants.
These people who serve in government (remember that word) work for us. Not the other way around. We pay their salary and they answer to us, even if they are from some Congressional or Legislative district other than the one we live in. We the people are their boss, and as US citizens, we have a very serious obligation to our fallen warriors to insist on honest and efficient government.
Earn this. Honor the fallen, this Memorial Day and every day. Do not let their sacrifices be in vain.