“We, too, born to freedom, and believing in freedom, are willing to fight to maintain freedom. We, and all others who believe as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees.”
~ Franklin D. Roosevelt, 19 JUN 1940
As I reflect on this eloquent statement, thoughts swirl through my head. Here are some of my observations.
For many people Memorial Day means a three-day weekend of cookouts, beaches, boats, partying, and just being off of work. And the fact that we even have those luxuries makes our nation stand out from many others.
Probably most of us are thankful we can enjoy such freedom. But we must remember for whom we give thanks. And we owe a great deal to a sacred group of persons who bought and maintained our freedom with their blood.
Unexercised freedom becomes useless, lost, and forgotten. Unchallenged, unchecked, and abused freedom can become orphaned and unhinged from its roots over time. It becomes unappreciated and stale, which leads to complacency. We begin to expect, demand, and take for granted, forgetting that nothing is free and everything comes with a price.
So often people don’t care about things until something is taken from them, until something affects their personal comfort and security in the moment. It may take a tragedy to make us realize the value of what we have. And by then it may be too late to do anything about it.
Let’s keep fresh in our minds how and why we have our freedom so we don’t lose it or have it taken away. Wisdom has both foresight and hindsight.
Unappreciated freedom can make us arrogant. And before long we begin to possess it like it’s our pet to command and control. We may even think that our freedom is exclusive, more precious than someone else’s, or that ours counts more because of status. But freedom is based on the same foundation for all or it’s not truly freedom.
Freedom itself doesn’t change with time, only its accessibility and definition by human interference. It is what it is regardless and is by its nature equally free for all. Though let’s not confuse freedom with anarchy. There are boundaries for safety, enjoyment, and respect, else it can be mistaken for a tool of tyranny and oppression.
But do we understand the value of our freedom? Do we really know what it costs?
Some do and have counted it more precious than their own lives. They understand that there are those who would undermine everything we believe in and try to destroy our way of life. There are those who think that a person’s freedom or bondage should be determined by a particular political power or military force driven by its own selfish gain.
However, we “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. And it is this holiday, Memorial Day, when we celebrate the lives of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice to protect and defend these principles.
They understood how precious freedom is to the point that, as President Roosevelt said above, they would rather die on their feet as free men and women than live on their knees in bondage. And they would pass that freedom on even to those too ignorant to appreciate it. Even being able to live in ignorance and enjoy free thinking with impunity is a precious gift reserved for a free people. Let us not take it lightly. Although there are those who will always need the help of others to enjoy the freedom they would otherwise lose for themselves. But those we celebrate today hold every life precious, worthy of fighting and dying for in the name of freedom.
And we have now moved into a new era in which the fallen are not only numbered from among the military, but also from civil servants and even private citizens. Or perhaps these things are but an echo of the bygone era in which our nation was founded. Now as then the spirit of freedom refuses to be quenched. It is preserved in the memory of the dead and is the driving force in the hopes and dreams of the living.
Although my family has had a military member in about every war and conflict since World War I, we’ve thankfully had few losses. I’ve always grown up hearing that my paternal grandma’s cousin was the first casualty at Hickam Field during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Apparently, he was gunned down running to his airplane. To my knowledge, that’s the first family member lost this side of the Civil War.
I’ll never forget when the Moving Wall came to town when I was a kid. This is the mobile version of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., that travels the country. My dad is a Vietnam veteran. I’m pretty sure my mom had to coax him to go see the Wall.
See, my dad was an EC-47 pilot back then, basically a type of spy plane. Without going into detail, my dad was originally supposed to be the pilot of a particular EC-47 with call sign “Baron 52”. Instead a different crew was on board and were shot down in the early morning hours of 05 FEB 1973. My dad has struggled with survivor’s guilt ever since.
The Wall lists all the names and statuses of those killed and missing during the Vietnam War (sorry, Vietnam and Korea were wars, not conflicts or police actions despite the political designation). Each name is catalogued by its specific location on the Wall so you can find it. Many people make pencil rubbings of the names once they find them. My dad looked up the names of several of his buddies who had been killed, particularly those of Baron 52.
It’s not often I’ve seen my dad cry, but I’ve never seen him sob and wail like he did when he saw the names of those men from Baron 52. See, five of the eight names from that crew were listed as missing, not killed. My dad didn’t know that. They had all been killed. Or so he thought. For years it was thought that several of the crew had been captured after the plane went down, but my dad had thought at some point their bodies had all been found. And to discover that after more than a decade and a half they were still listed as missing in action was devastating news.
Many families have been hit with the same kind of devastating news, and this holiday can be a painful reminder of their loss. However, it is also a day of hope and thanksgiving. The Bible says there is no greater love that you can show than to lay down your life for your friends. That kind of love is exemplified in the sacrifices we celebrate today and in the legacy we’ve been given.
Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., once said humorously that you don’t win a war by dying for your country, but by making the other guy die for his country. But even he knew that death is to be taken seriously, and he held the highest respect and honor for those who died in battle.
Sometimes death is a higher calling reserved for a special group of people who can effect the greatest good by it. They love freedom more than death and are willing to do whatever it takes, even at the greatest personal cost, to ensure that this land remains free for this generation and the next. Let us honor their memory and not let their sacrifices go in vain.
Please forgive my ramblings. I close with a little insight into the thinking of those we honor today, the principles and basis for their selfless actions. These principles were codified under President Eisenhower in 1955 as the “Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States” (or “Code of Conduct for the U. S. Fighting Man” or “U.S. Fighting Man’s Code of Conduct”). It has undergone a few updates over the years to modernize it, but for this exercise I refer back to its original form. I also offer a video of its explanation as delivered in 1959 by the famous Jack Webb–the soldier, the actor, the American.
Enjoy, and God bless America!
Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States
- I am an American fighting man. I serve in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.
I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender my men while they still have the means to resist.
If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.
If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information, or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.
When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am bound to give only name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.
I will never forget that I am an American fighting man, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.