One of the timeless traditions that occurs at the United States Naval Academy during plebe summer, before one is welcomed into the Brigade of Midshipmen, is for midshipman candidates to spend an afternoon at the Naval Academy cemetery where distinguished alumni and fallen warriors are laid to rest. The tombstones of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, a prisoner of war held in the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War, Rear Admiral McClusky, an aviator who led the carrier-launched air assault at the Battle of Midway, and Fleet Admiral Ernest King, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet during World War II, instantly catch the undivided attention of the new recruits seeking to follow in their hallowed footsteps and understand the human cost of serving one’s country.
After this transformational experience, some elect to withdraw from the service as they come to the conclusion that the profession of arms is not their calling; a few remain indifferent at the sight of suffering or death, and so continue on; but an overwhelming majority decide to press on out of a deep love for this country and everything it stands for, despite the possibility of death in combat or training at some point in one’s military career. My own decision, and that of my brothers and sisters in the service, to choose the latter consistently baffles me. How is it sane for one to endeavor on a path that will bring the likelier possibility of death, without any mental reservation?
This question also brings to mind a line of a famous poem written by a soldier witnessing the grotesque nature of total war in the trenches: “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori,” which translates to “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Here, Wilfred Owen states his honest thoughts about the First World War after detailing an unforgettable scene where the victim soldier, caught in a gas attack, is “guttering, choking, drowning” as “the blood [did] come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” It is a sight, so inhumane and brutal, that forces him to question if to die for one’s nation is the worthy and noble cause advertised in war propaganda.
For each person, the answer will differ. The pacifist will denounce any form of military activity; the hardline militarist will attempt to justify every war effort with the overly abused names of freedom and democracy. In the Second World War, young Americans enlisted to fight against the territorial spread of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The Korean and Vietnam Wars were primarily concerned over the containment of Soviet-era communism as a threat to the post-war international liberal order. The War on Terror (America’s forever war) began with the intent to defeat radical Islamic terrorism and later morphed into a Middle-Eastern democracy-building project—which, as the latest military reports find, is a lost cause.
At the start of every major war, there was a unifying cause for the American people to rally behind: defending liberty, preserving our way of life, or defending the integrity of the Constitution against domestic enemies. Many young men joined strictly because the underlying reason for declaring war compelled the human heart to action, knowing that inaction would later bring regret, as the image of your friends and brothers in harm’s way while you enjoy the comforts of home illustrates. But for the average recruit, especially with the elimination of the draft and the implementation of a volunteer fighting force, the reason to enlist is far simpler: to defend one’s home and family and lay down one’s life for his brother-in-arms, if Providence dictates such a fate.
It is because of this Christ-like sacrifice embodying John 15:13—“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”—that, regardless of whether one died in the jungles of Vietnam or in the remote villages of Afghanistan, every death in the service of our country is a noble death worthy of national memory and appreciation.
I understand how controversial this statement is, considering that not every citizen sees eye-to-eye with the act of war itself—or, especially, the political objectives behind every war. Looking at the past, with all the evidence at hand, no citizen in their right mind will argue that our previous two global wars in Vietnam and the Middle East began with wise political ends or military operational limitations in mind. Nevertheless, to diminish the sacrifices of those service members killed in combat, even in the case of friendly fire, is a mistaken disservice.
For many Americans, Memorial Day—originally called Decoration Day, from a Civil War tradition of decorating graves of fallen soldiers with wreaths, flowers, and flags—is spent by camping in National Parks, hosting family barbecues, or perhaps lighting a few fireworks left over from the previous Fourth of July celebrations. Not to neglect the community value of these activities, I would further suggest, regardless of whether or not you have any personal connection with a fallen warrior, to visit your nearby military cemetery.
In a moment in our nation’s history when division is at its height, we must be reminded of those men and women who placed aside their personal convictions and differences, no matter how right or wrong they may have been, for the greater good—the common good. We often forget how blessed we are, as a people, to enjoy the liberties we now take for granted which were made possible by the sacrifice of countless lives in centuries past. Some of these fallen Americans might have preferred not to be glorified or recognized, since for them, serving this nation was simply the right thing to do. But they deserve to be in our memories, etched into the fabric of our nation, because their death exemplifies the sacrifice that is required of all of us.
Image: The Normandy American Cemetery on the 75th anniversary of the World War II Allied D-Day invasion on June 06, 2019 near Colleville-Sur-Mer, France. (Getty Images)