Monday, May 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on Memorial Day 2010

On this Memorial Day 2010, our country continues to be fighting two wars. Our leaders seem bent on apologizing to other countries for every misstep, real or imagined. We are in the midst of the worst recession in my lifetime. We are starkly divided over the policies coming out of Washington, D.C. About the only thing we seem to agree on is that Congress is doing a lousy job. Even then, we are certainly divided about the reasons.

Memorial Day provides a fitting and proper occasion to honor our fellow citizens who are serving or have served in the military, particularly those who paid the ultimate price. It is also a fitting and proper to reflect on what our service personnel are fighting for, as well as our country's place in the world.

As a young man, I visited Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. Arlington is a sacred place that, unfortunately, will not be visited by the Commander in Chief today. More recently, a good friend from Germany took me and a colleague to visit the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial in the tiny country of Luxembourg. In each instance, the monuments seem to stretch on forever.

In the peaceful setting of a cemetery, one often tends to forget that each marker represents a personal tragedy for a soldier and his family. A young life cut short. Dreams never realized. A telegram with the worst possible news instead of a joyous family reunion. In perhaps the saddest cases, the marker symbolizes a parent who never saw a child and a child who never knew a parent.

I sometimes contemplate what the world lost in these seas of marble. Would one of these soldiers have gone on to find a cure for cancer or heart disease? Would some of them have invented new technologies that would have changed the world for the better, but are now lost to the sands of time? Surely some of them would have started successful businesses, employing their fellow citizens. Some would have become great leaders. We could sure use some leadership now.

My family has been, relatively speaking, pretty lucky. I never knew my uncle Don (full name, Gilbert Caudle, Jr.), who was my mother's brother. Don was killed in a helicopter crash or explosion under mysterious circumstances in Korea. So far as I know, my mother never knew the details. She did not speak about Don very much, but, when she did, tears would sometimes come to her eyes, and she was a pretty tough woman.

My uncle Bill served in World War II and Korea. I only remember meeting him once. Bill was a "lifer" in the service, meaning he stayed in until he reached retirement age. He drove trucks after that for a few years, but died young. Apparently, the service provided a structure to his life he literally could not live without. I wish I had really known him.

My father-in-law, Hubert C. Mott, who died in March of this year, served in the Signal Corps in World War II. He shipped out on the Queen Mary in 1944 as D-Day was beginning. So far as I know, "Hu" did not see much, if any, combat, but help make sure that communications were possible from Europe to the U.S., no small feat in that time. He was, quite rightly, proud of his service to the end, and proud of the sacrifice of his generation. He death was a stark reminder that the "Greatest Generation" really is coming to an end.

My wife's uncle, Henry Wehrfritz, also served in World War II. Henry was a unit accountant, showing that you have to keep track of what's coming in and going out in war, just as much as in peace. Henry's service literally took him all over the world, including Iran. Henry's wife Roberta (my wife's aunt) kept his letters from World War II to the end of her life at the ripe old age of 97.

We need to remember the sacrifice of every generation in serving our country. We also need to remember that our country has fought for some great causes. In the Twentieth Century, we helped save Europe from itself not once, but twice. After the unprovoked attack at Pearl Harbor, we beat the odds and beat back Japan when its empire was attempting to dominate Asia, including China.

Sure, we were late entrants into World War I, and the Soviet Union paid an even higher price than we did in defeating Hitler. It is safe to say, however, that the world would be a much different place if we had not been involved.

Often overlooked is the contribution our armed forces made during the Cold War. American military power kept the Soviet Union at bay, and, to some extent, does so even today with a resurgent Russia. Of course, Europeans deserve the primary credit for rebuilding their countries after the worst war in history. However, without the protection of the U.S. military, things would likely have been very different.

Having toured the beautiful cities of Prague and Budapest shortly after the collapse of the Berlin wall and eastern block, the difference between free Western Europe and the communist system could not be more stark. At the time, one could drive down streets that were restored to their original beauty on one side, and that still bore the grime of forty years of communist rule and neglect on the other. Even though this is very recent history, we tend to forget.

It is safe to say that there has never been a country more beneficent to its former enemies than the United States. Our country helped rebuild both Germany and Japan and also helped them to establish free governments. This approach certainly worked, because both countries are now among our strongest allies and trading partners. German and Japanese companies have invested billions of dollars in the U.S., employing tens of thousands of Americans and helping to rebuild our manufacturing base.

Since World War II, our country has tended not to be united regarding our involvement in wars and conflicts. Save for brief periods following the first Gulf War and 9/11, many have protested our involvement. Of course, the right to dissent is one of the bedrock principles of our country and is every citizen's right.

Nevertheless, our involvement in wars and conflicts has generally been for what were perceived, at least at the time, the right reasons. Even our most controversial war, Vietnam, was fought to oppose communism. Many forget that we were basically taking over for France in Vietnam, a country that has never been shy to criticize us.

In any event, I hope our service personnel will never again be treated as badly as those returning from Vietnam. Whether one agreed with the war or not, the men and women fighting the war were simply doing their duty. We have made some amends to them since the 1970s, but, for many of our fellow citizens who served in that war, the scars caused by their reception at home (not to mention the war) will never completely heal.

If there is one thing that bothers me more than anything else about our current leadership, it is the international apology tour: The bowing to foreign leaders with the assumption that all that is wrong in the world is somehow our country's fault. This goes hand-in-hand with allowing service personnel to be put on trial for highly questionable charges, and the lack of proper support for our soldiers in terms of both manpower and equipment.

No, we are not perfect, and, when we make a mistake, we should act promptly to fix it. But the world is a far better place with America than without it. I am an internationalist and have friends from many parts of the globe. We can learn from other countries and their citizens.

But apologize for our country? No way. It is an insult to those who serve and to every American remembered by those marble monuments. Instead of apologizing, our leaders ought to be saying they are proud to be Americans, are proud of our troops, and will support them at every turn. And when we make mistakes, we will try to rectify them and do better.

The one thing that gives me hope is that our country has been written off many times before and has always come back. I am betting we can do it again. I am also hoping that there is some future leader out there who will make saying "I'm proud to be an American" fashionable again.