The Gettysburg Address, in my opinion, set a permanent standard for the appropriate way to memorialize those who have died in battle. Solemn, short, and of some substance. I will make every effort to follow these simple guidelines today.
When considering the hundreds of thousands of American war dead, the natural question to ask is “why.” Certainly, we know all the textbook answers. We were defending our right to sail the seas, or stop fascism, or stop communism, or stop international terrorism. Simply read any classroom history text or search your favorite medium, and you will find the historians’ answers.
They are not wrong. They simply are insufficient for explaining why young men and women lay their lives down for such purposes.
One thing we can be certain of is that they do not do it for politicians, or policies, or terrestrial ideals. They give no thought to the words of some talking head or pronouncer of weighty arguments.
A soldier, sailor, airman, or marine is not thinking about health care proposals, or national debt issues, or Wall Street regulations while in harm’s way. In fact – sometimes to their credit -- your typical young adult is seldom thinking of these things much at all.
I also would suggest that even the deeper and more principled structures of our free society are at best a secondary consideration. We hold sacred our fundamental rights, free and constitutional government, and the ability to select our own leaders. However, as we have witnessed many mortals shrink from fear when defending these tenants under the safety of domestic life, I find it not too bold of a proposition to suggest they, too, are inadequate motivators of final sacrifice.
I believe we can find the most approximate reason for their surrender of life in a single word: duty. Duty: the quiet and supremely courageous grace of doing one’s job on behalf of others.
I remember the lesson I once heard from Indiana Congressional Medal of Honor winner Sammy Davis. When humbly describing his heroic experience in Vietnam, I vividly recall his prayer, “Please, God, just let me do my job.”
These men and women did their duty despite the unspeakable horrors of war in their futures. Cicero once said, “Fear is not a lasting teacher of duty.” The concept of duty naturally implies a full knowledge of its consequences, which for those we remember today, were final.
We are a nation of people who honor the concept of duty. Duty to our family. Duty to our neighbors. Duty to our work. Duty to our country and our fellow citizens.
As we sanctify the memory of fallen men and women here today, let us understand what it really means.
They died for us. In many cases, they suffered unimaginably before God chose the hour of His mercy. Sometimes, they died alone and without witness in faraway places. They died yearning for mothers, families, and loved ones for whom there would be no final farewells.
We are here because they are not. Their sense of obligation shortened their lives, but in doing so, they truly made their lives worth living. For no life given selflessly for the survival and prosperity of others can ever be in vain.
To all gathered today, and especially to our youngest observers learning about this occasion, I leave you with the words of John McCrae’s great poem “In Flanders Fields:”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
We remember our fallen heroes here today so that they may rest. God bless Michigan City, the State of Indiana, the United States of America, our assembled veterans, and most of all, the souls of our dearly departed.