Memorial Day, 2003
The end of May brings our annual opportunity to remember the sacrifices made by American servicemen and women. Sadly, that remembrance should be perpetual, an ongoing celebration of the selfless service necessary to defend and sustain our constitutional republic.
This year, we find ourselves in the midst of a complex, multi-layered conflict. As has been the case through history, the national debate on the merits of the war on terror is divided.
I take some solace in the fact that while millions argue against the policies of the President, the Defense Department, and the military establishment, most Americans support the young men and women who wear the uniform of our country. The perception of military service has changed since September 11, 2001. The most depressing legacy of the Vietnam era was the diminution of the value and importance of military service.
When "Johnny came marching home" from Europe, Japan, and the other foreign theaters in earlier conflicts, Americans embraced them with open arms. Confetti parades, employment offers, and heartfelt appreciation greeted our returning servicemen.
That tide changed with the war in Vietnam. Americans now had access to battlefield video, wartime news analysis, and to large scale, organized demonstrations.
I can remember the Life magazine pictures of anti-war protesters screaming at the young National Guardsmen, spittle flying from the mouth of the student-protester into the stoic face of the student-soldier.
The complexity of the conflict dictated the public reaction. I still believe that most Americans never truly understood the Vietnam War, hence their inability to accept the severe consequences.
The vision of President (Lyndon B.) Johnson, wrapped in a bathrobe and unable to sleep, slipping into the White House basement Operations Center in the middle of the night to check on the latest war news, is a sobering reminder of the impact of Vietnam on our national conscience.
This bear of a man, one of our nationís legislative giants, was brought to his knees by this tragic conflict. Mr. Johnson, for all of his many communication abilities, was unable to inspire Americans to rally behind the war effort.
Brave American soldiers never asked their ground commanders to justify their orders. They never refused to slog through rice paddies; they never refused to board the river patrol boats; and they never refused that deadly, sweltering march through the rain forest.
This Memorial Day finds our nation again thinking about military service and complex, dangerous conflicts. There are many differences between the America of 1969 and 2003. The ability of our national leaders to communicate through the mass media is much more sophisticated.
Images, sounds, and analysis fill every available channel and frequency. No political or ideological agenda can claim sole ownership of Americaís eyes and ears. From a liberal bias on behalf of the major networks and non-profit media, to an ultra-conservative bent on talk radio and computer chatrooms, you can find whatever speech most closely mimics your personal taste.
No matter who you are, no matter what you believe, no matter how jaded youíve become, everyone has to admit the incredible pride and relief we all felt when Private Jessica Lynch was rescued in Iraq.
The blurry pictures, seen through that weird green night-vision lens, showed the stretcher carrying that brave soldier in the hands of Special Operations troops. Hard to believe that only days before, Private Lynch exhausted every round of ammunition in her rifle in an attempt to defend her position and her fellow soldiers. Small towns and large cities across our country anxiously await the return of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Televised images of the loving embrace of a spouse welcoming their loved ones home after an extended deployment bring a smile to all of us.
My personal favorites are the dads whose children were born during the time they were away. Nothing fills the screen more than the emotion expressed at the first sight of a newborn by a parent who has thought of nothing else but that moment for months.
As happy as we are to share in those reunions, the reason we celebrate Memorial Day is to acknowledge the reunions that wonít occur. Mothers, fathers, wives, and children who will not have the opportunity to embrace their returning serviceman deserve our deepest debt of gratitude.
A tightly folded flag, an honor guard, a rifle salute, and the words "On behalf of a grateful Nation" are no substitute for that warm embrace. To the families who will experience that supreme sadness this (and any) year, let us all offer our prayers and our gratitude.
This Memorial Day, and every day we have the opportunity to pledge our allegiance to our flag, remember our servicemen and women. Take a moment to express your thanks for their sacrifice, and remember the high price that many have paid to defend the freedoms we hold so dear.