Monday, May 29, 2006

"Freedom is Not Just a Word": A Memorial Day Essay at the Washington Post

Today's Washington Post has got a moving essay from Sarah Elizabeth Kreps on Memorial Day, military service, and the preservation of freedom. Here's an excerpt:

One of the early scenes of Michael Shaara's book about the Civil War, "The Killer Angels," presents the commander of the 20th Maine Regiment, Col. Joshua Chamberlain, with 120 mutineers from the 2nd Maine. Chamberlain is informed that the mutineers had accidentally signed up for three years while the rest of their regiment had signed up for two and had since gone home. As the Battle of Gettysburg nears, Chamberlain must advance his regiment and determine how to handle the mutineers. In a great display of leadership, he delivers a rousing speech:

"Some of us volunteered to fight for Union. Some came in mainly because we were bored at home and this looked like it might be fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came . . . because it was the right thing to do. All of us have seen men die. Most of us never saw a black man back at home. We think on that, too. But freedom . . . is not just a word. We're an army going out to set other men free."

Afterward, 114 of the 120 mutineers join his regiment and proceed to fight at Gettysburg, the turning point in the Civil War.

On Memorial Day, this passage offers two important reminders. First, at many moments in its history the United States could have taken a dramatically different course without the commitment of the military. Second, we tend to romanticize the causes for which soldiers have fought in the past: for independence in the Revolutionary War, abolition in the Civil War, against aggression in World Wars I and II. But it is instructive that even the soldiers in these wars were at times unclear as to their immediate purpose. They were ultimately driven by the hope that they were part of an army that was helping perpetuate the freedoms they had been given and passing along those freedoms to others. Even amid the political acrimony that sometimes surrounded decisions about war, soldiers rose above the chaff and performed their duty with integrity.

So it is today with the service men and women fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and fronts on the war against terrorism, both at home and abroad. They have volunteered to serve their country, driven less by a tangible antagonism to a particular adversary than by a fundamental sense of the long term and the freedoms they are seeking to preserve.

Kreps' last line provides some perspective for this Memorial Day holiday: "Whether or not one agrees with the politics of the military, it's important to consider the path the United States would have taken without the dedication of its armed forces. We would certainly lack many of the liberties we now take for granted. Fortunately, this question is merely a thought exercise."

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