If there ever was a day in the American calendar that invites reflection, it is Memorial Day. As we pause to remember and honor the hundreds of thousands of our compatriots who have laid down their lives while serving in our armed forces, I invite you to ponder two points.
First: On Memorial Day, the American flag is to be flown at half-mast until noon, then raised to the top of the flagpole. I recently asked my students if they understood the significance of half-mast. They did not. We older Americans, especially we teachers, need to do a better job of transmitting such information to our youth.
The official etiquette is that the flag is quickly raised to the top of the staff, then slowly lowered to half-mast. What looks like half-mast is really mast-and-a-half. Just as those who died in military service gave beyond the normal measure, so we honor their memory by raising our flag beyond its normal measure. This powerful gesture affirms and salutes their greatness, even as we mourn the lives cut short. (One example: Loyce Deen from Altus, Oklahoma.) May you each find inspiration from seeing the flags at mast-and-a-half in eloquent tribute to our fallen heroes.
Second, a few words about seemingly unnecessary military deaths: Every military fatality is heartbreaking. Each is worth remembering on Memorial Day. Still, the loss is especially hurtful when the loss seems to have been for naught.
These losses fall into several categories:
Some are noncombat deaths, such as the training accidents that tragically occur from time to time. Preparing for war can be as lethal as war itself. In our imperfect world, accidents happen. But those who perish in those accidents are as heroic as those who die in battle, for both equally put their lives on the line to serve our country.
Another type of cruelly disturbing deaths is the category of casualties caused by so-called “friendly fire.” The most famous example in recent years was the death of Pat Tillman, who left behind a young wife and a successful professional football career to serve his country, only to be accidentally cut down by American fire in Afghanistan. War is chaotic and it is virtually inevitable that the Grim Reaper will claim the lives of those who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It isn’t fair; it isn’t right; it is the reality of war.
A third category of especially grievous losses is comprised of the countless thousands who have perished as the result of poor orders given by commanding officers, such as the doughboys who were ordered to leave their trenches and run into the teeth of German machine gun fire. Alas, there is no instruction manual providing perfect guidance for commanders in combat; consequently, the death toll rises. The fact that Americans continue to volunteer for military service in spite of this danger speaks volumes about their heroism.
There is another category of possibly unnecessary military deaths, and that is deaths in ill-conceived wars that political leaders blundered into. In America, the poster-child for this kind of war is Vietnam; in Europe, World War I. As to the latter, please note that, unlike the anti-American left, I side completely with the American goal in Southeast Asia of trying to preserve freedom and to prevent the eventual tragic outcome — the slaughter and enslavement of millions of people in communist Vietnam. It is the way our political leaders broke faith with our men and women in uniform that I abhor.
Let me explain: My wife’s cousin, Paul Dolik, flew Huey helicopters in Vietnam. Paul wrote home to his family that if Washington would simply get out of the way and let the military do its job, the U.S. military could win the war in six months. Shortly after writing that letter, Paul’s chopper was shot down and Paul perished. A few years later, President Richard Nixon bowed to the political pressures to abandon our no-win war and ceded Indochina to merciless conquerors.
There remains strongly divergent opinions about the Vietnam War, but let us unite on one issue: Let us never again send our men and women into combat without letting them win. And let us honor those servicemen and women who lost their lives to accidents or to military or political folly for their heroic willingness to serve. They did not perish in vain. Instead, they achieved an eternal victory by standing on the right side of history, the right side in the conflict between good and evil — the right side of life and liberty. They all gave their lives in service to the world’s last, greatest hope — the United States of America. Of course, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. God bless them all.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
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