Phil-osophically Speaking: July 7, 2011

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A Day of Gratitude

It is now 235 years since the United States declared its independence from Great Britain. Judging by the impact of that event, the year 1776, along with the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492 and the beginning of the Reformation in 1523, is a year that remains enshrined as one of the most momentous dates in history. It is so because the principles it has inspired have shaped not only a nation but also a world. Oceans of ink have been spilled celebrating July 4th so I don’t intend, even if I could, to expand upon its meaning. What I would like to do is remember those in our armed forces who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the theatre in Libya.

In some ways, they are a neglected lot since less than 1 percent of the population is in uniform and our daily lives on the home front, except for the occasional terrorist threat, are completely unaffected by our foreign wars. Contrast this to WWII when, with a population of just 140 million compared to the teeming 310 million of today, there were 16.5 million Americans in uniform during the war. From 1942 to 1945, not a single automobile was manufactured in the United States since a war economy demanded tanks, fighter planes, battleships and guns of every sort and caliber. During that war, everyday items like butter and coffee were rationed to meet the needs of our soldiers fighting abroad. Today, even amid a severe recession, shelves in supermarkets are overstocked with household goods.

So remembering our soldiers these days is a forced conscious act, an acknowledgement often inspired by the many American flags that are waving in the gentle breeze of this Independence Day. I’m grateful to God that our soldiers do not have to experience the disdain and contempt that their predecessors experienced during the Vietnam War: “Why don’t you,” one soldier was asked, “wear your uniform at home?” “Because I don’t like to be spit on” was the caustic reply. The country was that bitterly divided. The wars we are fighting today, cumulatively speaking, are now longer than Vietnam, but for long stretches they were not as heavily engaged. We lost 58,000 soldiers in Southeast Asia, far more than we’ve suffered in the war against terror. Those body bags weighed heavily on the conscience of Americans when little or no progress was seen in Vietnam. The so-called “peace offensive” here at home was mostly populated by the young who were subject to the draft. When selective service was no longer law the protests abruptly stopped even though hundreds of thousands of Americans were still fighting in Vietnam. It was fear of death rather than hatred of war that was the underlying reason for the burning of draft cards in the 1960s.

So those who are fighting abroad today, all volunteers, deserve our most heartfelt thanks for serving our nation in the noblest endeavor one can ever bestow upon his country. While a sense of adventure and excitement is nearly always attached to these youthful undertakings, it does not diminish the sacrifice of being thousands of miles away from home and those you love, where one’s own death looms as an ever-present shadow.  It makes those who did not serve feel like they missed something very important, a life-changing experience that deepens, sobers and expands the horizons of human existence.

This paean is not meant as a celebration of war or the glorification of martial conflict. Even the most bellicose, like Theodore Roosevelt, who trumpeted that “crowded hour,” was reduced to an empty shell over the shattering news of the death of his son Quentin in WWI. During the Napoleonic Wars the aesthetic of warfare had been in full bloom: The most gorgeous uniforms were paraded on the field of battle, the exquisite equipage and the plumed calvary officers mounted on magnificent white steeds made for a glorious spectacle. A century later the rat and louse infested trenches, khaki and machine guns, poison gas and barbed wire drained even the pretensions of romance out of war; if indeed there ever were, amid the rituals of pomp and circumstance, any glamour once the killing began. It was, after all, the Duke of Wellington, who after defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo said, “The only thing on earth worse than a battle won is a battle lost.”

I came of age after the Vietnam War when the American military fled reluctantly from the jungles of Southeast Asia leaving hundreds of thousands to their fate and the ghosts of thousands more young Americans who made the supreme sacrifice in those killing fields. In the first years after that war, Selective Service was seen as an ugly vestige of an industrial military complex, an anachronism that should live only in the history books. I wasn’t even required to register with the draft board. Buffeted by the storms of Watergate and Vietnam, the American military was never more demoralized in losing its only war.  During that period I wrestled with joining the army, but in the face of military demobilization and college beckoning in the foreground I decided, during a painful and troubling crossroad to follow, however aversely, the road of higher education. Perhaps, as Shakespeare said, there is “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.” This might be a comforting rationalization but it has done little to soften the greatest regret of my life, not serving my country in the United States Armed Forces. It’s a deep loss, a kind of on-going bereavement in my life, even a failure of some sort that I still feel keenly today.    

One of my core beliefs is that gratitude is among the most civilizing and cohering of all virtues. To draw deeply from the well of freedom and not replenish it at the risk of one’s own blood is traveling up a one-way street in two-way traffic. It is not enough to blow the foam off the head of a beer and call it imbibing; one must drink deeply of its brew no matter how bitter the taste. To live, after all, is not just about gaining something but doing something. No one exemplifies this code of honor more completely and selflessly than our soldiers.

We are standing at the brink of some very critical and irrevocable decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not wish to play “armchair general” with the lives of our soldiers but their feelings are abundantly clear: They’ve come to do a job and they don’t want to leave until it is finished. Their arms have recently routed the Taliban in Afghanistan’s traditional strongholds. This is the result of 30,000 additional troops that President Obama ordered. But because the president short-sightedly pledged to begin removing troops this July, there is pressure to give back these gains to the Taliban. Let’s pray this doesn’t happen; that the president will treat this withdrawal symbolically rather than substantively and that our troops will have a chance, a chance they yearn for, a chance that so many of their own have sacrificed and died for, a chance to stabilize a country still an eye-blink away from being governed by an unholy alliance between Islamic militants and international terrorists. What other choice do we really have; no one knows it better than our soldiers and that’s something we can be eternally grateful for as we bask on these sunny, peaceful shores this Independence Day.          

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