Monday, May 28, 2012

In Memoriam

Today marks Memorial Day, the day set aside for nationwide remembrance of the soldiers who have fallen in our nation’s wars. We remember them at Arlington, where overlooking the rows of white tombstones sits the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We remember them at the DC memorials: World War II, Korea, Vietnam. And we remember them at our local cemeteries, where today their graves are shadowed by the flag they served.

At Gettysburg, President Lincoln reminded us that we cannot hallow their ground, they have already done so with their blood. “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”

To ensure that, we need to know our history, particularly our military history. And to pull an example from history, I’m going to turn for a moment to one of our little-known wars.

In 1898 Senator John Thurston wrote the introduction to a book on the recently concluded Spanish-American War. Describing the terrible conditions in Cuba as “exceed[ing] the scenes of the Inferno as painted by Dante,” he argued:

There were those who said the affairs of Cuba were not the affairs of the United States, who insisted that we could stand idly by and see that island devastated and depopulated, its business interests destroyed, its commercial intercourse with us cut off, its people starved, degraded, and enslaved. It might be the naked legal right of the United States to stand idly by. 
I have the legal right to pass along the street and see a helpless dog stamped into the earth under the heels of a ruffian. I can pass by and say that it is not my dog. I can sit in my comfortable parlor with my loved ones gathered about me, and through my plate-glass window see a fiend outraging a helpless woman near by, and I can legally say this is no affair of mine – it is not happening on my premises; and I can turn away . . . look up to the motto on the wall and read, “God bless our home.” 
But if I do I am a coward and a cur unfit to live, and, God knows, unfit to die. And yet I cannot protect the dog nor save the woman without the exercise of force. 
We could not intervene and save Cuba without the exercise of force, and force meant war; war meant blood. The lowly Nazarene on the shores of Galilee preached the divine doctrine of love, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” Not peace on earth at the expense of liberty and humanity. Not good will toward men who despoil, enslave, degrade, and starve to death their fellow men. I believe in the doctrine of Christ. I believe in the doctrine of peace; but men must have liberty before there can come abiding peace. 
Intervention meant force. Force meant war. War meant blood. But it would be God’s force. When has a battle for humanity and liberty ever been won except by force? What barricade of wrong, injustice, and oppression has ever been carried except by force? 
Force compelled the signature of unwilling royalty to the great Magna Charta; force put life into the Declaration of Independence, and made effective the Emancipation Proclamation; force beat with naked hands upon the iron gateway of the Bastille and made reprisal in one awful hour for centuries of kingly crime; force waved the flag of revolution over Bunker Hill, and marked the snows of Valley Forge with blood-stained feet; force held the broken line at Shiloh, climbed the flame-swept hill at Chattanooga, and stormed the clouds on Lookout heights; force marched with Sherman to the sea, rode with Sheridan in the valley of the Shenandoah, and gave Grant victory at Appomattox; force saved the Union, kept the stars in the flag, made “n[****]” men. The time for God’s force had come again. The impassioned lips of American patriots once more took up the song:
“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
For God is marching on.”
Others might hesitate, others might procrastinate, others might plead for further diplomatic negotiation, which meant delay. But for me, I was ready to act then, and for my action I was ready to answer to my conscience, my country, and my God.
We shy away from this sort of theological language today, and to a certain extent rightly so. The last ten years have shown us the how misguided religious militarism can be. But it should be humility that motivates this caution, not skepticism. We do right to not wrap God around our causes but rather to hope, as Lincoln did, that we are on God’s side.

But we still ought to honor those who gave their lives in service of their fellow man. Our wars, unlike those of history, are not fought for wealth or land. The only thing we request at the end is a place to bury our dead; dead that now span the globe. Around the world there are 24 burial grounds containing the bodies of over 120,000 US soldiers spread across Belgium, England, France, Italy, Luxemburg, Mexico, Netherlands Philippines, and Tunisia. They gave their lives in service to liberty, to “the proposition that all men are created equal,” and to the idea that some nations become illegitimate based on their treatment of their citizens. Our nation fought, and our soldiers died, to preserve the dignity of others.

We can continue the story that Thurston did not live to see. Force halted German expansion in the First World War; force liberated the concentration camps of the Second World War; the threat of force halted Soviet expansion in Europe; force kept communism at bay in Korea and Vietnam; and, more recently, force has toppled oppressive dictatorships in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is not force for the sake of force or conquest that has motivated these actions. Instead, as so eloquently stated by President Lincoln:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
The goal is a “just and lasting peace . . . with all nations;” not the false peace of totalitarianism, but the true peace of international equals. And today we honor those who have given their lives in pursuit of that dream.

But then how can we honor these dead? President James Garfield said:

There is nothing in all the earth that you and I can do for the Dead. They are past our help and past our praise. We can add to them no glory, we can give to them no immortality. They do not need us. But forever and forever more we need them.
He is right. The dead don’t need us nearly as much as we need them. Their sacrifice is what permits us to celebrate this day under our flag instead of under a foreign flag. And their dedication to the cause of freedom should show us how little we have sacrificed. Their deaths uphold and give sobering purpose to our lives.

They adopted an attitude of “my country, right or wrong.” It is up to us to ensure that their sacrifice was worth it; that their country remains right. Only then will they have not died in vain.
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