The challenge of Memorial Day.

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This past Monday was Memorial Day across our land. In our community of Rice Lake, up in northwest Wisconsin, we have a tradition of a special program for the day at our Veterans Memorial Park, on the lakefront. It’s a beautiful setting and we always have a good turnout when the weather cooperates, which it did this year.

I am not a veteran; a high school athletic injury quashed any hopes I might’ve had of joining the military, but as readers of this blog know, I am a strong supporter of our armed forces. My brother was in the Army National Guard, a cousin served in the Gulf War, my father was in the Army, holding the line in Europe during the Cold War. We have traced our military lineage back to the Civil War, in which my great-great-grandfather, William Tindell, served in the 43rd Wisconsin Infantry.

 

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Col. Amasa Cobb, commander of my great-great-granddad’s regiment, was a lead miner and then a Congressman from southwest Wisconsin, my family’s home.

 

In 2012, I was asked by the organizers of Rice Lake’s Memorial Day service to be the guest speaker. It was a great honor, and in subsequent years I was asked to speak at our Veterans Day programs in 2013 and ’15. A few weeks ago I got a call from Larry Anderson, a Vietnam vet and the current Memorial Day program organizer, asking if I would care to be the guest speaker again. Of course, I said yes.

Larry asked me to talk about the history of Memorial Day. This year is the 150th anniversary of what Congress has recognized as the first official Memorial Day program. I decided to expand on that theme and bring it forward to today. The original Memorial Days, then known commonly as Decoration Day, were held to commemorate the men who had died in the Civil War, on both sides. But in my research I discovered that those early organizers also had an eye toward future generations. The terrible war that had torn our country apart was still very fresh in their minds. Over 600,000 Americans died in that war; as a percentage of the population, that would be the equivalent of 6 million dead today. That is something almost impossible for us to imagine, a tragedy so cataclysmic that one wonders how our nation could survive such a thing. Yet that is what happened to our ancestors 150 years ago. They survived by pulling together, vowing never to forget what had happened and to never let it happen again.

 

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The sacrifices of Americans from 1775 to today call out to us.

 

Memorial Day in our town, 2016.

It was a beautiful day as we gathered in Rice Lake this past Monday. The Bethany Brass was once again on hand to provide the music. The local Boy Scout troop handed out the programs. Veterans from World War II to today’s conflicts were on hand, many of them wearing caps and shirts commemorating their service. It was truly inspiring and gratifying to see so many people, taking time from their holiday to gather together and remember.

 

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By the time the ceremony began, there wasn’t an empty seat to be had.

 

Pretty soon it was time for yours truly to deliver the keynote address. Needless to say, there was no TelePrompTer, so I did it the old-fashioned way, from a printed text. I had practiced it several times at home, and my years in radio pretty much did away with any stage fright. It went over well, and several days later I was still getting compliments. Below the photo I have reprinted the text of the speech. It was my goal to inspire people, to remind us of our common heritage and what that legacy calls us to do.

 

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Thank you, Larry, and to all of you here today, I wish you a pleasant good morning, especially to our honored veterans and their families. Today we come together once again to remember those men and women who have been called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country, on behalf of us.

But how did this remembrance actually start? What does it mean, and most importantly, what does it call us to do? Today is more than a day off from work for many of us, a day for picnics and ballgames and going out on the lake. It is a day to remember, and it is a day that has two words for us to contemplate: challenge, and responsibility.

Americans have been making the ultimate sacrifice for their country for nearly a quarter of a millennium. A few years ago I visited my daughter in Boston and we walked the Freedom Trail, and climbed to the top of Breed’s Hill to visit the Bunker Hill Memorial. It was on that spot in June of 1775 that some of the first American blood was shed in defense of freedom. 115 Americans lost their lives that day, in the first major battle of the Revolution. Just two months earlier, 49 had been killed in the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.

It would be 90 years later before any kind of Memorial Day was observed. On May 1st, 1865, just weeks after the end of the Civil War, an observance was held in Charleston, South Carolina. The city where the war had started four years earlier now lay almost completely in ruin, largely abandoned by its white residents, but most of the African-American residents remained, now free. The city had been the site of a prisoner of war camp, where hundreds of Union captives were held in deplorable conditions at a horse racing track. More than 250 perished there and were thrown into a mass grave. After the Confederate troops abandoned the city, black residents went to the POW camp and reburied the Union dead properly. They built a white fence around the cemetery and an archway over the entrance, upon which they inscribed, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

And then they held a parade around the track. Some 10,000 people participated, almost all of them of African descent. They were led by 3,000 schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body,” followed by several hundred women carrying flowers, wreaths and crosses, then hundreds of men marching in cadence, and finally Union soldiers, including members of the famed 54th Massachusetts, African-American troops whose story would be told more than a century later in the award-winning film Glory.

 

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A year later, in April 1866, four women from the town of Columbus, Mississippi, gathered to decorate the graves of more than 2,000 Confederate soldiers buried in Friendship Cemetery. 32 Union soldiers were buried there, and they were recognized and honored by the ladies as well. Each year, in a tradition started in 1991, students from the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science in Columbus research the lives of soldiers buried in the cemetery and recite their stories, dressed in character.

The original ceremony in Columbus inspired a poem by Francis Miles Finch, called “The Blue and the Gray.” It begins like this:

By the flow of the inland river,

Whence the fleets of iron have fled,

Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,

Asleep are the ranks of the dead.

Under the sod and the dew,

Waiting the judgment day;

Under the one, the blue,

Under the other, the gray.

Finch’s poem became very popular and is credited with raising public sentiment for an official Memorial Day.

There were other local ceremonies in the years following the Civil War. In Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg; Winchester, Virginia, at the first Confederate cemetery; Carbondale, Illinois. On May 30th, 1868, Civil War veteran, congressman and future president James Garfield was the speaker at the first memorial ceremony held at Arlington National Cemetery. But it was a formal celebration in Waterloo, New York, held on May 5th, 1866, that the U.S. Congress would recognize a hundred years later as the original Memorial Day. The final Monday of May was designated as the official holiday in 1971.

It was a veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, which was most influential in the creation of Memorial Day. Local chapters were involved in almost every Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, in the Northern states after the Civil War. These veterans knew they had a responsibility not only to the Americans of their day, but to those of the future. One of the leaders of the movement was Illinois Senator John A. Logan, who had served as a major general in the war. He said, “Let no vandalism or avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations, that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided Republic.”

 

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It will be an especially somber Memorial Day today in Phoenix, Arizona, as they remember one of their own who just a few weeks ago made the supreme sacrifice. Charles Keating IV graduated from high school there in 2004 and was a track star. He ran track at Indiana University and then enlisted in the Navy in February 2007. From boot camp he went to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training, the notoriously-difficult regimen known as BUD/S, because he’d wanted to be a Navy SEAL since 9/11. His grandfather had served in World War II and his great-grandfather in World War I. He received his trident in 2008.

Charlie Keating was the recipient of multiple awards and commendations for his Navy service, during his two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He had returned to Iraq a few weeks earlier for his third tour, helping to train local fighters to take on ISIS. On May 3rd, over a hundred ISIS fighters overwhelmed a Kurdish checkpoint outside a town and engaged the Kurds in a fierce firefight. In the rear were a handful of American advisers. Charlie Keating’s quick reaction force was sent to get them out. They succeeded, but Keating was struck by direct fire from an ISIS position, and even though he was able to be evacuated by helicopter under fire, he did not survive. Charlie Keating was 31.

 

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Charlie Keating didn’t have to be there. He probably could’ve found a way to avoid another tour in Iraq. He could’ve turned down re-enlistment, could’ve stayed out of the SEALs, could’ve stayed out of the military altogether. But he felt a responsibility. It was the same responsibility felt by almost every person, man or woman, who has put on our nation’s uniform, in fact even before there were uniforms. The colonists who fought at Lexington and Concord, and atop Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill, wore the clothes they wore in their fields and their shops. But they did not shirk their responsibility just because they didn’t look like real soldiers. Those men were the first of more than 1.3 million Americans who have given their lives for their country. For us.

I want you to think about that number for a minute. If every one of those 1.3 million Americans were to line up and march down here among us, allowing us ten seconds to give their name, their hometown and the place where they fell, it would take two and a half days for them to march past us, round the clock.

We gather here today to remember these men and women, not to mourn them. General George Patton said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”

In just over five months we will elect a new president. There is no more important responsibility in our democracy than voting, especially when we will choose someone to be our leader for the next four years, the same person who will be the de facto leader of the free world. In the last 241 years, over a million Americans have given their lives so that we can exercise that right. How, then, can any one of us justify staying home on Election Day? The answer is, we cannot.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I returned home from a visit to China. We saw a country that is big, in many important ways. They are big in land area, they are very big in population, they are big in resources, and they are big in industriousness. They are on the move. In a very short time they have transformed a country that was little more than a vast land of peasants into an economic and military powerhouse. They are well-educated, they are hard-working, they are fit and healthy, and they are challenging us on every front. They envision a world that pays more attention to what is happening in Beijing than in Washington.

 

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And what are we doing to meet that challenge? That is what each and every one of our honored dead is asking us. They did not take up arms and lay down their lives just to postpone the day when we have to sit in the back while someone else is driving the bus.

I had a conversation with a young Chinese gentleman who acted as our tour guide in Shanghai. He asked me what I thought about the South China Sea situation, where his country is challenging the territorial claims of Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines, nations that have long been allied with the United States, and also Vietnam, a nation once our enemy but now one that is actively seeking our help and support.

I said to him that our official position is that we support our allies. I also told him that we have no desire whatsoever to go to war with China, or with anyone else, for that matter. We would very much prefer to live in peace with everybody, to do business everywhere, to have our citizens travel to their countries and welcome their citizens to visit ours, and he nodded his agreement.

The problem is, not everybody would agree with us on that point. After our conversation, I couldn’t help but remember another conversation I had on a foreign trip, a few years earlier. This one was to Egypt, and I was talking to another tour guide, this one a young woman. And that conversation, my friends, was very different.

I remember in particular two specific questions she asked me: Why do we support Israel, which she called a terrorist state, and why did we drop the bomb on Japan in 1945, committing what she called the ultimate act of terrorism? Her questions reflected her own perspective, shaped by years of education in a country and a region that has a very different view of things than we do.

 

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The challenges posed to us by China and the Middle East are starkly dissimilar in many respects, but they are ones we are called to meet, challenges we must meet. This is something our forefathers decided to do. Succeeding generations have sometimes decided to go back on that, but such a choice has always proven to be wrong.

It wasn’t too long after the Civil War, 150 years ago, that we chose as a nation to step out onto the world stage, to make our voice heard, to let the word go forth, as John F. Kennedy would later say, that we will pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, and oppose any foe, to assure the success of liberty.

When you are willing to stand up and make that statement, you had better be prepared to back it up. We did it in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, in France twenty years later, and we’ve been doing it around the world since 1941. We had to show that we could not only talk the talk, we could walk the walk, too.

The men and women we remember here today did what had to be done to back that up. They do not ask us all to put on a uniform and pick up a gun, to board a ship or climb into a cockpit as they did. What they ask us to do, indeed what they demand of us, is that we remember why they did what they felt called to do, that we support their brothers and sisters who are in uniform today, and their families, and that we stand up and say to those who would challenge us, “We are Americans. We seek peace, but we are prepared in case you do not.” As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready.”

I have been fortunate to have been able to travel widely, around this country and the world. Outside our borders, I have never had a problem, anywhere. I have never encountered anyone who is openly anti-American. Indeed, I have often been thanked. In Italy, an elderly man said he will always be grateful to the American soldiers who helped save lives in Naples, including his own, when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. In Croatia, a young man pointed to the hills above the seaside city of Dubrovnik and said that was where the Serb artillery was, raining destruction down upon his city, until the American planes came and drove them away, and now he lives in a free land.

Encounters like these make me proud to be an American, and they are also humbling, because they remind me of the great debt we owe to those men and women who marched on those roads, who drove those tanks and crewed those ships and flew those airplanes. They allowed us to keep our freedom and brought the torch of liberty to many millions around the world.

I am also reminded of the responsibility we continue to bear. In Austria, a tour guide in Vienna told us the Austrian Army was setting up a display, in preparation for a holiday the next day. “They are happy to do it,” she said. “It gives them something to do, because they never have to fight anybody.”

And I said, “Yes, because that’s what we’re for.” And as I told the young man in China, we would very much prefer not to have to do that. But as Colin Powell once said, “Nobody wants America to be the world’s policeman, but when they need a cop, who do they call?”

 

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My fellow Americans, that is an enormous responsibility, but it is one we must accept. There are millions and millions of people living in freedom around the world right now because of the sacrifices of the men and women we honor today. They are in Europe, in Japan, in South Korea. They are on the island of Taiwan and the many islands of the Philippines. They are in Canada and Australia and the British Isles. And they are in Israel, able to live free because they know we have their back.

But there are other nations where some, if not most, of their people wonder about that. Many of the people of Vietnam and Iraq wonder about it. They have discovered what happens when the Americans leave.

The word “responsibility” is not often heard in our society anymore. It’s so much easier to blame someone else, to say it was your parents’ fault, or the school’s, or the cops who are always hassling you. People of one race blame those of another for all their problems, people who are here blame immigrants, forgetting that their own ancestors were immigrants, too. Democrats blame Republicans and Republicans blame Democrats.

And with all this finger-pointing and evasion of the dreaded “R” word, we seem to be confused and upset by polls that show two-thirds of the people in the country feel we’re on the wrong track. Well, let me ask you: whose fault is that?

The men and women who were remembered at those very first Memorial Days over a century ago did not give their lives so that their descendants would become a nation of whiners and finger-pointers. The ones who died on San Juan Heights, in Belleau Wood, in North Africa and the beaches of Sicily and Normandy, they didn’t want that. How about those who dug into the black sands of Iwo Jima, who stood on the decks of ships firing machine guns at the kamikaze planes as they bored in? Or those who flew into clouds of triple-A fire over Germany, who pulled their wounded comrades through the snow at Chosin Reservoir? More recently, what about those who dodged the SAMs over Hanoi, the medics who applied first aid to the wounded in Fallujah, and the Marines who led patrols through the fields of Afghanistan? What do you think they would want us to do?

In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in Paris entitled, “Citizenship in a Republic,” in which he had something to say about those who aren’t willing to get in there and do the heavy lifting:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

 

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My fellow Americans, it is common at proceedings like these for us to ask our honored veterans to stand as they are able and be recognized. We do so because we want to know who they are, to publicly thank them for their service and their sacrifice, and that of their families. And we will do this. But today I want to close by doing something a little different. They all stood up and were counted years ago. They said they were willing to do whatever it would take to protect this country and carry the torch of liberty, even at the cost of their own lives. They provided us with the means to build this bucolic park, in this quiet town in this beautiful state of Wisconsin, one of fifty in these United States.

Now it is our turn. They are not asking us to put on a uniform and go forth to meet our enemies, to hold back those who would take all this from us. These men and women have already done that, and there are plenty of Americans who have followed them and are standing guard all around the world right now. It is time for us to say, “We have asked so much of you, and now we understand what you are asking of us.”

It is time for us to stand up and be counted. To say, “We are Americans. We live in the United States of America. We will do our best every day to live up to the responsibilities we have as Americans. We will do our very best to live our lives with honor and integrity, to help our neighbors, to vote and to participate in this democracy you have preserved for us. We know it won’t be easy. Sometimes it will be very hard, and we will get discouraged, but we will not give up! Because you went into the arena, and now it is our turn, and we will not let you down.”

Who’s with me? Who will stand up and say, “You can count on me”?

Thank you, may God bless our veterans and may we hold in our hearts the memories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and may God bless these United States of America.

 

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