This article is a slightly edited version of one I posted in 2019.
This past week we honored those who died while in military service. Parades were held, their graves were decorated, and speeches honoring them were made. We were told in a variety of ways that they died so that we could live to enjoy the freedoms they fought for. And that’s almost true – their deaths and the sacrifices of all of those in the services and their families have preserved and protected the freedom we enjoy today. But too seldom do we ask why – why did they serve; what motivated them to endure the discipline, the danger and the drudgery of serving in the military day after day.
Pat Tillman graduated from Arizona State University, recognized as one of the best linebackers in the country. He became an all-pro safety in the NFL. After 9/11, he turned down a multi-million-dollar contract to continue playing football and enlisted in the Army instead. He participated in the invasion of Iraq, became an Army Ranger, and was then sent to Afghanistan. He became increasingly uneasy with the war, and intended to speak out after his tour was over. He died due to friendly fire before he could.
The key question to me is why did a Pat Tillman – and the myriad others who doubted the rightness of the wars they fought – continue on until they paid the ultimate price. Clearly he – as did so many others – joined the military because of his idealism. But as one who’s been there I can tell you: there are few idealists in foxholes. My own experience (backed up by a fair amount of research) says that in those moments of crisis when the shooting starts the one thing that drives us is the thought that we can’t let our buddies down.
We have been bound together by common circumstances. We’ve all undergone the same bullying by drill sergeants. We’ve all had to leave family and loved ones behind. We’re all in some misbegotten hellhole and have to rely on each other for our very survival. In short, we’ve formed a community.
And within that community, we recognize that we have responsibilities to each other. Our local news ran a poignant story of a combat photographer who had died in Afghanistan. Her last picture was of the explosion that took her life. But it was the tearful words of her company commander that resonated so strongly: “She was my responsibility. I sent her there and I didn’t bring her home.”
In our own communities, too many protest real or imagined violations of their rights while seeming to forget the responsibilities those rights entail. No one should argue against anyone’s right to “speak truth to power.” But those who speak – whether ordinary citizens or especially those in the press – have a responsibility to be sure that their “truth” is factual. We’ve had way too many instances of the press on one side or the other twisting the facts (and sometimes making things up) to discredit people with whom they disagree.
No one should argue against anyone’s right to worship their gods – or not – as they choose. But that right brings with it a responsibility to respect others’ practice of their religion. Just as atheists and agnostics should not be forced to participate in prayer, those who are religious should not be forced to take actions that are inconsistent with their beliefs. Our Second Amendment gives us the right to own a gun. But that right brings with it a responsibility to use and store that gun safely, and to ensure that it is not misused by someone else.
It is fitting that we honor the fallen by decorating their graves. But perhaps it is more fitting to follow their examples. They died doing their duty as they saw it, carrying out their responsibilities to their comrades in arms – their community – as best they could. As each of us enjoy the rights and privileges of being a member of our community, let us also accept the responsibilities those rights entail. We honor them best by doing as they did – accepting our responsibility to our community.