Twenty-five years ago, a newly naturalized American citizen wrote:
“You who have been born in America, I wish I could make you understand what it is like not to be an American — not to have been an American all your life — and then suddenly, with the words of a man in flowing robes, to be one, for that moment and forever after…one moment, you belong with your fathers to a million dead yesterdays. The next, you belong with America to a million unborn tomorrows.”
We are here today to remember those who gave their lives for a million unborn tomorrows. They were our parents, grandparents, our children, sisters, and brothers. They looked like us, and had hopes like ours, and dreamed as we dream. And they died too soon, mostly too young, and it is still hard to understand sometimes.
Oh yes, they died for America. But what does that mean? Was their sacrifice worth it? If they could see us, speak to us, what would they say?
The young farmer-turned-soldier who fell in his own field near Lexington, Massachusetts in 1776 might look down the tunnel of years with some satisfaction. After all, he played a part in the first real step toward freedom from tyranny — a step that began the long American walk toward independence. At the time our young farmer fell, William Pitt across the ocean was telling his colleagues in the House of Commons, “You cannot conquer America.”
He was right. We turned our plowshares into swords, and then back again. We were to do it again, and again, most tragically when we turned inward against ourselves.
In the stone foundation remains of a house in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania guide explains that here, brother met brother, one in gray, one in blue. History does not record the outcome. And yet, it was from this most painful of wars — a foreign critic called our Civil War “a dirty chimney on fire” that our strongest national bonds were forged. Far from permanently splintering the Union of states, it drew them ultimately together. But it took row upon row of brothers to do it. From their vantage point, looking down through the years, the end of the debacle of human slavery, and the determination of the Union not to be split again might seem worth the price.
Fifty-three years later the symbol of American fighting spirit was written on a tent near the General Expeditionary Force in France –it simply said, “Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken by Christmas.” It was probably written by one of the men under Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daly, who some months earlier in the Belleau Wood shouted to his troops: “Comer on you S-O-B’s! Do you want to live forever!” Those doughboys saw their duty and wrote their names in honor on our national pride. But you and I know there is more.
Big number II rolled around, and took many Americans with it. Even more did not come home. Was it worth it? S-H-H-H-H! Down the tunnel of years I hear:
Commander Howard Gilmore, mortally wounded on the deck of his submarine – the Growler — telling his crew to “Take her down!” to avoid further attack, though he knew he would die,
Do you hear Commander Bob Dixon, from his plane to his carrier on the Coral Sea, “Scratch one flat top” — one less Japanese carrier to kill American GI’s ,
And, of course, everywhere you looked in Europe, “Kilroy was here,”
And in true American spirit, when General Anthony McAuliffe received a German surrender demand at Bastogne, Belgium right before Christmas of 1944, he replied eloquently and articulately: “Nuts!”
Too soon on the heels of the big war, which was to be the war to end all wars, a small but nasty conflict erupted in Northeast Asia.
“Retreat hell!” said General O. P. Smith at Chongjin Reservoir. “We’re just fighting in another direction
Was it worth it? After 20 years, South Korea is still South Korea, and the South Koreans I know cherish their freedom. And they know where it came from.
The only real question mark in this chronology is our involvement in Viet Nam — the Non-War War.
When Diem Bien Phu fell in 1954 and the decimated French finally beat a hasty retreat, that part of Southeast Asia had been at war with itself for years. Ten years after the French left, our military advisors were up to their necks in trouble — largely because for the first time in our history, we had a non-declared war with our military completely subservient to a civilian chain of command.
We all know the outcome. Whether or not it was worth it is up to each person to decide. But I believe we sacrificed 50,000 good men and women on the altar of civilian incompetence, lousy judgement, and no understanding at all of guerilla warfare.
So here we find ourselves, on this calm day in May of 1981. To honor so many Americans who are gone.
That’s hard to get in focus. No more twinkle in blue eyes or brown. No more quick grins, or little pats on their children’s heads. No more soft words at twilight.
We remember them in a special and singular way. They died for the promise of America. They died so that you and I might, simply, live. So that you may continue to be a Protestant or Catholic or Jew, or whatever you choose. So that you and I may continue to read any book printed, espouse any opinion, challenge any authority say yes or no as our own conscience dictates. They died so that you may vote, not vote, demonstrate, stay home, work on Saturday, and go to church or picnic on Sunday.
In dying, they set us free.
Think of it! We are the only nation in history intentionally founded on the principle that people should be free.
The United States of America is the only nation in history that works toward peace, freedom, and opportunity as every-day goals. Other nations call it a dream. They are right. It is the American dream. Was it worth it? Was their sacrifice worth it?
Listen and decide:
Like a distant rumble of thunder, like a roll of old war drums, The voice of America’s fallen Fills the valleys and mountains and comes To tell you an old-time story,
One that you’ve known all along:
That YOU are America’s promise,
That YOU are America’s song.
Stand up straight now, and proudly listen
While that clear voice swells in your chest,
You are worth what they each gave you,
And my friend, they gave you their best.