The President’s speech in Normandy is a far better commentary on Memorial Day then anything I could offer, but what follows is a speech I delivered as part of the Colonial Williamsburg Veterans Day celebration. I think it works for today, as well.One of my earliest memories is that sense of great height, the rush of wind in my ears as my father held me atop his shoulders on the shores of Puerto Rico. I could see for miles across the ocean from my post, held aloft by those strong arms. “Never be afraid,” he used to say, “of standing on my shoulders.”
My father has taught me many things, but I think this was the first. It was a lesson of loyalty and trust. The American dream seemed far away across that ocean–yet my father never gave up hope of building a better life for us here. He taught me that I could rise up above the dirty streets of my youth, the urban flack and steaming cement of the inner city — that we wouldn’t always live where we could hear gunshots at night — that starting poor, and weak, and small didn’t mean it had to stay that way.
And through it all he reminded me of those who had gone before us, who had risked their lives and fortunes for the freedom we presently enjoy: people like my grandfather, an Army Colonel who served under MacArthur in Korea, and in Panama afterward. My dad was an Army brat, who’d seen all of Latin America before he was 18. I remember finding an old uniform of my grandfather’s once in a neglected closet — marveling at the feel of its sleeve, the worn buttons and proud shoulders, the flood of stories it represented to my young mind. My father taught me the true responsibilities that wearing the uniform entailed–the solemn covenant of sacrifice and patriotism: Duty, Honor, Country.
Would that more in my generation understood that ancient responsibility. Even in the wake of the tragedy of September 11, there seem to be precious few of my peers who remember the lessons of the past. Far too many of them seem to be caught up in the immature finger pointing of an apathetic age, where protest for the sake of protest seems more fashionable than the uniform of service. Even at this moment, where the country is united more than at any time in the past 50 years, my own generation’s American pride is scarce – they are more apt to point blame at our flag than salute it. It is a sad case indeed: a poll of Harvard students taken in the week after the attacks found that, if called upon by their country, barely more than 1 out of every 4 students would willingly serve in the armed forces.
To this I can only respond, with a certain degree of pride, that Harvard is no William & Mary. I am proud to be on a campus where “unity day” is not merely a euphemism for anti-American discourse.
But there are some in my generation who have forgotten the faces of their forefathers–the faces of the lone Marine on the beach, the grave General in the bunker, the Army Nurse working against harsh reality in the hospital tent. To some, the only wars left are those that take place on the movie screen, where there are no casualties, where, after the sounds of the guns and pain, we return to a quite, peaceful world outside.
For this, they should be ashamed.
Make no mistake–the war that lies ahead is not one of economy or state–it is one of ideology as well. The ideology of our enemies praises the bold manhood of the agents of terror, who destroy in an instant thousands of lives, the lives of unarmed men, innocent women, and crying children. The destruction of strangers, the murder of noncombatants, is not a cowardly act, they claim; rather, it earns them the posthumous marks of conqueror, martyr, hero.
To the eyes of those who peddle terror in our streets, the American brand of heroism must be hard to fathom. Our heroes are those who run into the flames of collapsing buildings, without a thought for their own safety, hoping beyond hope to save a single stranger. Our heroes are the faceless volunteers, the doctors, the police, the firemen who labor on through the rubble, damned if they will be stopped by flying debris or another collapse. Our heroes are those who lay down their lives for the sake of others.
In life, it is cowardly to purposefully attack those who cannot resist and thus threaten you in turn; in war, it is cowardly to purposefully attack civilians. The butchers of September 11 fail by both those standards.
Yet there is promise for us today, as well. In the Biblical book of Nehemiah, we are told the story of the ancient walls of the holy city of Jerusalem. They had been laid to waste by a foreign enemy, the city’s gates burned to the ground, the defenses left barren and desolate. The people were left without heart for work or civic pride, fearful for their families and their land, confused, hollowed out, and uninspired.
Into this scene strode Nehemiah. With a few blunt words–you might even call them folksy–this man seized the leadership of his people, and turned their hearts back toward the work at hand:
“Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how the walls of Jerusalem lieth in waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall together, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” (Nehemiah 2:17)
Today, we strive to rebuild the wall. It is slow going — placing brick upon brick, stone on stone, one day at a time. But Americans have done it before. You, you who stand here today, have done it before. And, working together, we will do it again.
“Old men forget — yet all shall be forgot, and still we will remember” the sacrifices made by those who came before, who met challenges greater than this with strength of heart and mind. Some stand with us today in person — others stand here in spirit. And years hence, when the heroes of this war join your ranks, those who forgot their solemn duty will think themselves accursed they did not stand with us today.
Today I bring you a simple pledge, offered without pretense, as one student at the alma mater of our nation. Others have forgotten — but we will never forget you who have come before us, who have sweat, and bled, and died …
All so that a man can stand up on his own two feet, hold his son atop his shoulders, and look across the ocean towards Hope and Freedom.