Nearly 1.3 million Americans have died in the nation's wars. That is one soldier for every hundred families living today. One soldier for every 270 of us has died somewhere between the shot heard round the world' fired at Lexington and the shots being fired now as you read this on some dusty patch of rock in Kandahar. We all bear the terrible burden of their sacrifice. And the greater burden to make that sacrifice meaningful.
By the time Memorial Day or Decoration Day came into being, men had been going off to war for centuries to protect the colonies and then the republic. They had done such an excellent job of it that by the time a day to remember the fallen was set aside, pacifism had come to seem like a realistic philosophy. And that too is the price of service. To do your job so well that future generations no longer appreciate that the job had to be done at all. That those who inherited the security of their sacrifices threw dirt into the faces of those who died for them.
The philosophers of peace begin by demonizing war and end by demonizing soldiers. If war is something unnatural, then it stands to reason that the soldier is an unnatural creature. Get rid of the soldier and we get rid of the wars. The attitude is older than Vietnam. Older than human history. That uncomfortable relationship between the farmer and the hunter. The gatherer and the warrior. And while soldiers dig in beneath the howling wind, the philosophers build their airy castles. The academic fancies himself more moral than the soldier for he knows that war is a senseless and unnecessary thing. The soldier knows that war is senseless, and yet so horribly necessary.
"For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an ' "Chuck him out, the brute!" But it's "Saviour of 'is country," when the guns begin to shoot;" wrote Kipling. And so it has been on this side of the ocean.
The more airy our philosophy has become, the worse the image of the veteran has gotten. Rarely has the American soldier been treated as he should. Revolutionary War veterans were robbed of their pay. Civil War veterans went begging on crutches. WW1 veterans were chased out of Washington D.C. at bayonet point. WW2 veterans were denounced as a lazy and corrupt army of occupation. The Vietnam veteran was depicted as an unstable beast. The modern soldier as a broken killer. But even as we have done better at providing a safety net for veterans, the image of them has gotten worse. We may need 'Tommy', but the community organizers still long to chuck him out.
The modern hero is the rebel. The man who doesn't follow orders, but ends up doing what's right anyway. Every campus since the seventies has been crowded with conformist rebels without a cause. Even the 'Army of One' slogan bends that way turning heroism into a private matter. Something an individual does on his own time. But the heroism of the soldier is not a private act. Our warriors are not savages covered in face paint or riding on the back of pickup trucks through the desert high on hashish. The army is a reflection of our civilization. A group effort. Its solidarity is not based on cinematic archetypes, but on men following rules even when it gets them killed. There is and has always been private heroism in that. But it is a private heroism that springs from the common denominator of the group.
The military has its uniforms and the left has theirs. The soldiers have their marching orders and their treasonous counterparts have theirs. The former have Arlington. The latter have Kent State. And every day men and women risk their lives so that rebels without a cause may rave on. It is a one sided war, this culture war against the military. A cowardly campaign against those whom they know cannot answer them in kind. This frenzied effort to denounce and dismantle the national defense of a country. Compromise the military-industrial infrastructure enough, and there will be no more war, the left says. And indeed there will be no more war. Only slavery.
A nation cannot exist only because of its soldiers. Yet without its soldiers it cannot exist at all. The existence of America is a tribute owed to the millions who served, who were wounded and who fell in the line of duty. That their sacrifices have won them the dishonor of their culture is a shameful reflection on the culture, not on them.
The sacrifices of war are immemorial. And yet they are the sacrifices of peace. There is no peace without someone to fight for you. The volunteer army is a voluntary sacrifice. A tribute of courage that passes from war to war and generation to generation. Its refining glory is that legacy. Across the centuries blood spilled is reborn as farms and factories, books and laboratories, skyscrapers and cottages. From the first militia that looked across the frontier of a darkened continent to the soldiers who rise aloft into the sky watched over by the ceaseless eyes of orbiting satellites, the growth of the nation ahead and below them is their tribute.
Yet the more secure a civilization becomes, the more it fears to look back into the red heart of the violence that gave birth to it. War is the womb of nations. But when enough wars are won, then there is room enough for the thinkers and philosophers to imagine a better way. A world without war gained not through miracles, but through the good fellowship of other men. "We have it all figured out," they cry, "all we have to do is be nice to each other." And then they stand with worthless treaties and furled umbrellas in the bloody rain.
We are imprinted to fear violence. The more security we gain, the more flight becomes the dominant instinct. The herd learns to run, hoping for security in numbers. "What of 3,000 dead," say the left, "far more die of cancer in a single year." That is the voice of the herd. The cows who dream of safety at the cost of the cattle ahead of them on the abattoir's long conveyor belt. The ostriches looking for utopia in the dirt covering their own heads. To such people, security equates to morality, and comfort becomes ethics. A refusal to risk one's life except by clambering up the occasional endangered tree becomes heroism. Bartleby and James Dean, the men who don't know why they say no, take the soldier's place in the hall of heroes.
Peace was not won for us by campus activists with kerchiefs shrieking into megaphones or bearded thinkers pontificating smugly about utopia. They have always been its greatest obstacles. For it is not some noble and glorious state. It is the absence of war. And war is only absent in the face of war. Our homes are not kept safe by the books in them, but by the weapons borne in their defense. So too no nation is kept safe from intruders by its libraries, but by its soldiers. Great libraries make great soldiers. But a library without soldiers ends up as the Great Library of Alexandria did when the Muslim horde arrived to claim it. As a pile of ashes.
Thus the existence of a nation and the sacrifices of its soldiers are inextricably linked. One cannot survive without the other. There is no single day alone that can memorialize this most immemorial of sacrifices. It is an endless thing. The life of the one and the other linked together. There cannot be only one or two days in which to remember their service, just as there cannot be but one day or two to remember one's own parents. As their sacrifices are immemorial, so much their remembrance be.
Yesterday was Memorial Day. Today their remembrance is Immemorial.