“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…” Abraham Lincoln, from the Gettysburg Address
“Heroism is latent in every human soul – However humble or unknown, they (the veterans) have renounced what are accounted pleasures and cheerfully undertaken all the self-denials – privations, toils, dangers, sufferings, sicknesses, mutilations, life-” Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Sometimes it is best to remember that people that lived long before us have profound things to say about subjects that we often address in rather cheap and banal ways. It is easy to do this; in fact many people, especially ideologues and pundits simply quote the great men and women of history simply to buttress what they want to say in much the same manner that preachers from all sides of the theological spectrum will comb the Bible or the Church Fathers to find support for often decidedly un-Christian ideas. Of course unscrupulous preachers of other religions do the same with their sacred texts so it tends be a universal problem.
Of course we should know better than to do this but all of us do it to one degree or another. Even worse are those that will misquote people either to bolster their arguments or to tear down the person that they quote. It should not be that way on Memorial Day. The sacrifices of those that gave “the last full measure” in defense of their homeland, principles and those that they loved are too great to trivialize by using the sacrifices of the fallen to promote themselves as they prepare to launch political campaigns as was recently done by a prominent politician at an annual event which honors veterans in Washington DC.
I think that Abraham Lincoln eulogized the fallen better than almost anyone in the history of our nation when he traveled to Gettysburg and gave a refreshingly short speech for a politician. Lincoln considered the speech a failure but history shows it to be one of the most remarkable ever made by any American public figure.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot 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 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.”
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes gave a speech in 1884 twenty years after his service in the 20th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War. A veteran of Antietam and other major engagements he made these remarks in a speech so powerful that it was a key factor in Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to nominate him for the Court.
“Every year–in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life–there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. Year after year lovers wandering under the apple trees and through the clover and deep grass are surprised with sudden tears as they see black veiled figures stealing through the morning to a soldier’s grave. Year after year the comrades of the dead follow, with public honor, procession and commemorative flags and funeral march–honor and grief from us who stand almost alone, and have seen the best and noblest of our generation pass away…
But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death–of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”
In his inaugural address President John F. Kennedy a combat veteran of the Solomons Campaign provided a message which though not directly related to Memorial Day certain echoed the themes of the sacrifices of our fallen but also call us to the highest ideals of our nation. As a Naval Officer in command of PT 109 his boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer after which his leadership and courage was a deciding factor in the survival of most of his crew. Kennedy was a child of privilege but he volunteered for the arduous duty of service on the tiny PT Boats. The speech is considered one of the premier speeches by an American President.
“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,”² a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself….
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
In 1984 President Ronald Reagan visited Omaha Beach in Normandy, the site of the bloodiest of the D-Day landings on June 6th 1944. Reagan was a master of rhetoric and understood the importance of his visit to this hallowed site at the apex of the Cold War. At that time it was unimaginable to most people that the Soviet Union would be no more barely 5 years hence and Reagan used the speech to link the sacrifices of those who fought and died at Normandy to those that served in his day. While his focus was on the sacrifice of America and its British, Canadian and French allies that landed on the beaches of Normandy he recognized the sacrifices of the Soviet Union which lost 20 million soldiers and civilians in the war against the Nazis. Reagan said of those who went ashore in Normandy:
“The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you….The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.”
Today President Barak Obama made these remarks to conclude his speech following the solemn duty that all Presidents have in laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Obama who is vilified by his most extreme opponents, as was Reagan for that matter ended his speech with these comments in which he eloquently expressed what the nation must do for its military, veterans and those killed in action or missing as well as the highest example of the brotherhood that those of us who have served in harm’s way feel for our fellow Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen:
“Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice, and we must. We must honor it in our own lives by holding their memories close to our hearts, and heeding the example they set. And we must honor it as a nation by keeping our sacred trust with all who wear America’s uniform, and the families who love them; by never giving up the search for those who’ve gone missing under our country’s flag or are held as prisoners of war; by serving our patriots as well as they serve us — from the moment they enter the military, to the moment they leave it, to the moment they are laid to rest.
That is how we can honor the sacrifice of those we’ve lost. That is our obligation to America’s guardians — guardians like Travis Manion. The son of a Marine, Travis aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps and was accepted by the USS [sic] Naval Academy. His roommate at the Academy was Brendan Looney, a star athlete and born leader from a military family, just like Travis. The two quickly became best friends — like brothers, Brendan said.
After graduation, they deployed — Travis to Iraq, and Brendan to Korea. On April 29, 2007, while fighting to rescue his fellow Marines from danger, Travis was killed by a sniper. Brendan did what he had to do — he kept going. He poured himself into his SEAL training, and dedicated it to the friend that he missed. He married the woman he loved. And, his tour in Korea behind him, he deployed to Afghanistan. On September 21st of last year, Brendan gave his own life, along with eight others, in a helicopter crash.
Heartbroken, yet filled with pride, the Manions and the Looneys knew only one way to honor their sons’ friendship — they moved Travis from his cemetery in Pennsylvania and buried them side by side here at Arlington. “Warriors for freedom,” reads the epitaph written by Travis’s father, “brothers forever.”
The friendship between 1st Lieutenant Travis Manion and Lieutenant Brendan Looney reflects the meaning of Memorial Day. Brotherhood. Sacrifice. Love of country. And it is my fervent prayer that we may honor the memory of the fallen by living out those ideals every day of our lives, in the military and beyond. May God bless the souls of the venerable warriors we’ve lost, and the country for which they died.”
Sometimes our fallen are eulogized by the less notable and sometimes oft vilified people. One of these men was Robert Ingersoll, a politician, orator and lecturer as well as an agnostic in a time when that was not a popular belief. Ingersoll was the son of a Congregationalist minister who often preached for revivalist Charles Finney. Ingersoll was also a veteran of the Civil War where he raised and commanded the 11th Illinois Cavalry Regiment which fought at Shiloh. remarked:
“These heroes are dead. They died for liberty – they died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free, under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, and the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or of storm, each in the windowless Place of Rest. Earth may run red with other wars – they are at peace. In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death. I have one sentiment for soldiers living and dead: cheers for the living; tears for the dead.”
As we conclude this Memorial Day weekend let us remember those who have given the last full measure of duty for our nation, those who have served those that continue to serve and the friends and loved ones who cherish the lives and memories of each one. Let us remember as a nation, as fellow citizens and never let our own agendas, ambitions or even our baser instincts sully their memory. May we choose the higher calling of service to our country and each other as Americans, the ideals of which are woven in the lives and sacrifices of those that we honor today and as Lincoln said to finish “the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they 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.”