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Memorial Day

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.

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A New Birth of Freedom

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln

One hundred fifty seven years ago, in a little over two minutes, Abraham Lincoln delivered the most powerful speech ever given on this continent. In these 272 words, he reminded all of us of what has made the American concept exceptional.

In 1863, Mr. Lincoln had taken the first step toward ending slavery in this country. Undoubtedly, this was part of what inspired his “new birth of freedom.” But just below the surface of his words, we can find the face of Freedom’s homely twin – responsibility – “who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”

In our highly polarized politics at the national level, both sides claim to be for “Freedom,” although they seem to be worlds apart in what they think Freedom is. This polarization is filtering down to our communities, impacting their resilience. To me, our Bill of Rights provides an excellent operational definition of Freedom, especially the First Amendment. We must be free to worship (or not) as we wish. We must be free to peaceably assemble. We must be free to believe as we wish and to express those beliefs. In the Constitution, these are couched in terms of prohibiting the federal government from denying these rights.

But it is just as important that we recognize that no individual or group has the right to abridge those freedoms either. “Cancel culture” does not exist in a society that values freedom. A recent survey found that one third of Americans are unwilling – even afraid – to express their political beliefs. This week, two poll watchers in Michigan were vilified, their families threatened, and were finally browbeaten into accepting election results that they believed were tainted. Communities where one side does not allow opposing views to be expressed cannot engender the trust needed for resilience.

Events such as the one in Michigan happen because some of us have forgotten Freedom’s twin – Responsibility. There’s nothing sexy about Responsibility, but it is essential for community resilience. By accepting the good things that come from being a part of my community, I incur a responsibility to the community, especially in times of crisis. Over the last few years, but especially in this time of Covid, too many of us have forgotten that our freedoms bring with them responsibilities. I am free to express my beliefs as long as they don’t harm others, but I also have a responsibility to protect others’ freedoms even if I don’t agree with them. I am free to express my opinions (e.g., that lockdowns are essentially worthless), but I can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. And while I might not want to wear a mask or a condom, I have a responsibility to avoid passing on whatever I might have to the rest of the community.

Just as in 1863, many of our communities – and our country – are riven by very different conceptions of government and governance. If our communities are to be truly resilient, we must repair our social fabric, and bind our communities’ wounds. Let us heed Lincoln’s words and be midwives to a new birth of freedom, and responsibility.