Memorial Day Address, 2012

Rancho Bernardo Veterans Memorial

First, my thanks to Admiral Fontaine, the Rancho Bernardo Veterans, the Marine Color and Honor Guards, and the Marine Air Wing Brass Quintet. I also thank the Rancho Bernardo High School Madrigals for their beautiful singing. We were all particularly entranced by the so appropriate and moving Requiem, which they sang last.

It is an honor and privilege to speak here. It is also a considerable challenge to speak appropriately and adequately on this, the saddest of our national holidays.

Memorial Day differs from Armed Forces Day, May 18th this year, when we honor all who are now serving in our nation's uniforms, and take notice of their splendid service in today's wars.

It also differs from Veterans Day, November 11th, when we honor all the living who have survived their service, particularly those who served in wartime. Many of the veterans we then honor were wounded in body or mind, but they survived, and on Veterans Day we rejoice for their living presence in our communities.

Today and in the days around this Memorial Monday, we honor the dead, particularly all who were killed in action or died of their wounds.

We also honor the Gold Star family members who know the heartbreak of losing sons, daughters, parents, spouses, brothers and sisters, long before their times.

Many families throughout the country mark Memorial Day by visiting the burial places of their heroes; they there quietly remember, and to some extent their broken hearts heal. They are following the tradition of this day, formerly Decoration Day, started after the Civil War, to tend the graves and lay flowers at them, and thereby be consoled. That tradition continued at Rosecrans and Miramar this weekend.

So sad are the equivalent days in other countries, that there are no speeches.

In the United Kingdom, Remembrance Day was instituted in 1919, and literally no one could find words to express Britain's grief for its horrendous losses in the 1914-18 World War. To this day, there are no speeches; instead all London comes to a stop and goes silent for two minutes, at the end of which the Royal Family lay wreaths at the Cenotaph.

Similarly, we here, in Rancho Bernardo, have observed a somber time of silence, will soon place a wreath, and will sound Taps for all who made the Ultimate Sacrifice.

But we Americans have our own traditions, and with the great example of President Lincoln's Gettysburg address, we do our humble best to speak meaningfully.

How then to honor the dead of our wars?  One can't do better than to use their words.

Particularly striking are the words of Major John Hottell, West Point Class of 1964, a Rhodes Scholar, an infantryman of the 1st Cavalry Division, twice awarded the Silver Star for actions in Vietnam and across the border in Cambodia. A year before he was killed, and following a period of heavy fighting, he wrote his own obituary, addressed to his young wife, to be read after his death. Here's part of it:

 I loved the Army: it reared me, it nurtured me, and it gave me the most satisfying years of my life. Thanks to it I have lived an entire lifetime in 26 years. It is only fitting that I should die in its service.

We all have but one death to spend, and insofar as it can have any meaning, it finds it in the service of comrades in arms.

And yet, I deny that I died FOR anything - not my country, not my Army, not my fellow man, none of these things.

 I LIVED for these things, and the manner in which I chose to do it involved the very real chance that I would die in the execution of my duties.

I knew this, and accepted it, but my love for West Point and the Army was great enough -- and the promise that I would someday be able to serve all the ideals that meant anything to me through it was great enough - for me to accept this possibility as a part of a price which must be paid for all things of great value.

If there is nothing worth dying for - in this sense - there is nothing worth living for.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Marines who are with us today, and all others who now serve, particularly those who serve in combat arms, LIVE their service as Major Hottell did, with the full realization that it involves the very real chance that they might die in the execution of their duties. Such men and women, by the courage of their living, honor the war dead.

But what about us Veterans, long past our time of active service? And what about the vast majority of fellow Americans, patriots who never joined the Armed Forces and never will? How can all our lives honor the war dead?

I think we do it by remembering that the United States is a democracy, so that it is our will, through our Presidents, members of Congress, and Senators, that sends young men and women to war and keeps them there.

We citizens have no greater imperative to act responsibly, to know and understand what we are doing, than when we commit the nation to war.

Sometimes the issues are clear, as when in 1941 Japan attacked us and Germany soon after declared war on us.

A week from today, June 4th, will be the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, a turning point in the Pacific War. In San Diego, where there are so many ties to naval aviation, we will particularly remember Torpedo Squadron 8. Fifteen of its aircraft flew from the carrier USS Hornet, and six from Midway Island, to attack the Japanese fleet. All fifteen aircraft from the Hornet were shot down and only one pilot, Ensign George Gay, survived. Five of the six launched from Midway were also shot down, and there were only two survivors, Ensign Earnest Albert and Radioman Harry Ferrier. Thirty-four others were killed. Not one of their torpedoes hit a Japanese ship, but still their attack decisively affected the battle and led to its victorious outcome. As they flew their slow aircraft low and straight toward their targets, the men of Torpedo 8 truly lived to serve in the full knowledge that they were very likely to die in the execution of their duties. We must honor them.

Often when war is being contemplated, the issues are not nearly so clear cut as they were for the United States in December 1941, and then it is essential that we have been paying attention and doing our best to understand all the stakes.

We must also be humble, knowing that in every war at least one side has been wrong: wrong in its ethics (by aggression, or by choosing war over peaceful means of resolving disputes), wrong in its war aims, wrong in strategy, or wrong in its calculation of the war's duration, cost, and outcome.  

In many wars, both sides are wrong, as the governments of Europe were in August 1914, when they mindlessly permitted the presumed imperatives of treaties and mobilization plans to take their nations into the Great War that took millions of lives and devastated the continent. 

There has been no dispensation for the United States from the reality of at least one side being mistaken in going to war, nor is it likely that there ever will be a dispensation for us.

Think of the bloodiest and most costly of our wars, the Civil War, also the most tragic because it was a war of brothers. It came about from the nation's failure, which was recognized by many of the Founders, to acknowledge the unacceptability, in a democracy dedicated to liberty, of citizens keeping other Americans in slavery.

Our nation avoided its great moral contradiction, hoped to buy time with compromises but only worsened the problem, and continued for 80 years on a path to disaster. The failures of generations of politicians eventually caused the deaths of over 600,000 Americans, most of them young, nearly all without blame for the war.

It is now usual to call the war in Afghanistan our longest war, and indeed it's in its eleventh year, but that doesn't yet really make it our longest.

The Philippine-American War and a succession of rebellions lasted from 1899 to 1913. They cost the lives of over 4000 American servicemen and vastly more Filipinos. For the Philippines, the prolonged conflict was a war of independence against the United States, which had removed the prior colonial power, Spain, only to replace it.

 Many Americans opposed annexation of the Philippines, pointing out, often eloquently, how it contradicted the principles on which our nation had been founded and survived its infancy. But our government, caught up in the imperialist spirit of the age, persisted. And again our servicemen did their duty, knowing that it involved the very real chance of dying in its execution.

For many of you, Vietnam was your war as it was John Hottell's, and as it was for more than two and a half million Americans who served there.

As you know, the ground war was marked by shockingly violent battles the length and breadth of South Vietnam, against determined, competent enemies. And then there was also the intense air war over the North.

We now know, from President Johnson's audio tapes and Defense Secretary McNamara's admissions in his old age, that as they ordered the large-scale deployment of American forces and the war's escalation, they had no clear idea of what those forces were to achieve; they did not have a clear strategy for the war.

The fighting forces sensed the strategic uncertainty, but still they lived to serve in the full knowledge that there was a real chance they might die in the execution of their duties. Over 58,000 Americans, mostly young, did so die.

I am not so egotistical as to prejudge history's verdict on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in those wars, and in the wide global war on terrorism, young Americans have lived to serve, and they continue that life of service, in full realization that performance of their duties carries with it the real chance of death. 6470 young Americans have so died.

Today, we solemnly mourn those recent dead, as well as all Americans who have died in prior wars.

Let us honor them by living worthily, by taking the time and effort, before we again commit young Americans to war, to understand why the war is essential and the only course open to our nation, to understand its objectives and how they are to be achieved.

That is our duty, to be lived with particularly high diligence, because our service as citizens carries with it little real chance of our dying, even from terrorism.

So let us, the nation, act bravely, never giving way to panic even though the world is dangerous, and doing our level-headed, deliberative national best when it comes to committing Americans to war again. Thus can we honor the war dead today and every day.