Memorial Day Reflections
It was an early summer day in June 1970. I was with some of my friends in Pleasant Grove, where we grew up, explored the Prairie Creek beds and played like boys did in those days, as depicted in the 1986 movie Stand By Me. A friend of ours, David Broach, whom we hadn’t seen since he dropped out of school and joined the Army, arrived and joined the uninteresting but important conversation. Everyone’s focus shifted to David. We were all interested. He had survived his Tour in Viet Nam, and we were glad he was home … and we were all excited to hear all about it. But he didn’t have much to say. Seemed to be just glad to be home. But he was also preoccupied, it seemed, in constant thought about his Buddies still there, 9000 miles away from where we were standing. Without any fanfare, David said he Re-upped. He was heading back. Someone asked him why. He said, I’ve been there and survived. The hardest part of survival was the first 3 minutes after jumping off the helicopter. If you can survive that, you have a chance. I know what to do and the green soldiers don’t. I have a chance to save one brother with my experience. A month later he headed back.
Two weeks later Specialist Fourth Class E4 from Co. K, 75th Infantry Lrrp, in the 4th Infantry Division, Earl David Broach was dead.
I didn’t see David again until 1992, when I was working in DC and went to the Viet Nam Memorial. I walked solemnly along the long black granite wall and found his name, and ran my fingers across it. There he was along with 58,190 other Americans names (now 58,300 names).
David is in my thoughts tonight as I reflect on Memorial Day. I think about my father sitting on a lonely stool in a crowed bar in Algiers in 1943 and my father-in-law eating the unexpected amazing chicken in the barracks at the base of the Himalayas, as he and his buddies prepare to fly the treacherous Hump again the next day in the same year. I think of my grandfather and my uncle Carroll, his son, stationed aboard the same ship serendipitously in the South Pacific also in ‘43, as they recall at muster my grandfather’s service in a different branch in a different theater 25 years earlier in the Great War. I think, too, about my cousin Josh Wilson and his wife Sara (both West Point grads and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan), and my nephews, Retired Air Force Major Robert Babb and Michael Bond (a 2-tour veteran of Afghanistan), now stationed at Ft. Knox. I think about so many others in my family who served in the Guard and the countless others in our country who served and sacrificed so much for us through the years.
As I reflect, I am struck by those famous words by President Lincoln on that solemn day in 1863 when, on that short ride from Washington to Gettysburg, he penned the words “that last full measure of devotion,” he himself thinking of those who lost their lives on that now infamous battlefield, on both sides. It rings in my ears as I think of David, and for those many who at this very moment are taking off or putting on their specially fitted legs and arms, and for those who feel as though there is nothing left to live for having lost their way back here at home, no longer having the comradery of the “brotherhood” of war.
What more noble and courageous thing can one do than lay down his life for his friends, for his family, for his country? What more ignoble thing can human beings do to each other than force a war? We see the best of ourselves in the sacrifice given; we see the worst of ourselves when we kill each other. War is hell!
I think of David and all my family members who gave so much for this country and then I watch the TV these days. And I think of George Washington, and the advice he gave his fellows in his Farwell Address in 1796. He says a couple of things we so easily forget these days, words of challenge to ensure the preservation of the union for which so many sacrificed so much. We must always remember that we are one (e pluribus unum as the original American motto said) and we must be good (a people of moral virtue). When we fail at these our sacrifices become lost in a fog, and we lose our way. Washington said:
The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth;
The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles.
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State …. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
And then he says:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. … A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
It is easy to garner sacrifice under the banner of grievance and revenge. But in such patriotism it is not easy to know whether we are in the right nor shall we easily know how to exercise the power we have within the bounds of proper restraint when called into unwanted but necessary wars. Such patriotism not underwritten by virtue makes everything fall apart, as Yeats imagined in his poem The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
Sheer patriotism is not enough. It must be born of virtue in service of the common good. The due honor for the sacrifices of David Broach and the many who have sacrificed so much for this country must be in pursuit of the common good of all. As Washington exhorted us to remember: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.” As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
On this Memorial Day, let us honor those who have given that last full measure of devotion … and did so in the constant belief that their sacrifice was in the service of the good. Let us give honor to those who sacrificed so much by giving ourselves in pursuit of the good of the One who is the source of the Common Good, the One in whom resides the basis of our liberty and binds the many into one.
God Bless those whose sacrifice secured and ensures our freedom; God bless us all in such a way that our greatest happiness should reside in sacrificing ourselves in pursuit of your goodness; for should we fail at this the sacrifices of so many for such goods as freedom and liberty will surely devolve into mere vanity.