Memorial Day, 2012

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Today is a day in which we remember and honor those who died while serving our country.  It is a holiday, which implies celebration.  To many, the combination of the two seems paradoxical.  The underlying reason for this holiday is as serious and somber as they come.  Yet the reason these honored men and women put their lives on the line and paid the greatest price possible is a reason we must celebrate.

The vast majority of times the American soldier has been placed in active conflict have occurred on foreign soil.  The history of our country is not one of empire building.  Instead, the American soldier has been the world’s foremost instrument of defending representative government.  As a country, our history indicates that our soldiers sacrifice has not only been on behalf of the United States, but on behalf of all people who wish to be free.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said of America’s use of the military in 2003, “We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we’ve done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home to seek our own, you know, to seek our own lives in peace, to live our own lives in peace.”

When people question whether or not America is an exceptional country, I tend to refer them to the above quote.  We use our military might not to expand our own land or to enrich our country.  Instead, we fight on behalf of others.  The lives lost are on behalf of others.  We ask for nothing in return except enough land to bury our dead.

It is natural for a day like today to cause political debate, as our country is in the midst of the longest active conflict in our country’s history.  The cost of a long war half way around the globe is great.  The cost to those who have sent a son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother or spouse across the globe not to return is the highest price possible.

We generally set policy debates aside for this day, however.  Instead, it is a time when we unite as one to honor those to whom we can no longer say “thank you.”

The results of those who gave their lives for this country are evident in our current relationship with those whom we formerly fought.  The British are among our strongest allies.  The Germans and Japanese are among our strongest trading partners, woven into the permanent fabric of our economy.  How and why we have fought, and how we have treated our adversaries in victory has made a lasting impression on the world as it is today.

As long as there are people, there will be the potential for conflict.  We have a military that is tired amidst a war that has been long.  The individual soldier remains ready to take orders to protect us at home or our interests abroad.  Each knows he or she may be one we are posthumously honoring on this day next year.  Each does so willingly and voluntarily.  As such, each is a hero.

Those who have fallen and those who continue at the ready to defend do so that we and others may continue to live our lives in peace.  We remember them today.  And we celebrate.

We celebrate because each of us is lucky to be in a country that is exceptional.  That exceptionalism comes because we stand on the tall shoulders of those who made sacrifices not for themselves, and not for self interest, but for the greater good of all people.

Our celebrations have somber origins.  We celebrate on behalf of those who cannot celebrate with us.  But celebrate we must, and celebrate we will.

Celebrate the heroes that gave their all.  Celebrate those who stand at the ready to do so.  And celebrate a country that is exceptional.