Last year on Memorial Day, my wife, daughter, and I were touring Cambridge, England. We took a bus ride three miles out of the city to the U.S. military cemetery there–one of 25 American burial grounds administered by the U.S. government on foreign territory. Cambridge University showed their deep gratitude for their American ally in World War II by donating 30 acres to serve as a final resting place for 3,812 Americans stationed in England who lost their lives in the war.
There is also a wall in this cemetery. Inscribed on it are the names of 5,126 additional American servicemen whose bodies were never recovered, including President Kennedy’s older brother, Joseph Jr., and the famous American bandleader, Glenn Miller.
There is nothing quite like the solemnity and unique peacefulness that pervades the atmosphere of military cemeteries. These hallowed places, consecrated to the memory of fallen soldiers, sailors, and airmen, touch the soul. These military cemeteries elicit the same otherworldly feeling, whether in the English countryside or at Arlington National Cemetery across the river from Washington. I have never visited the vast cemetery at Normandy, France, where 9,387 Americans are buried; but friends who have were moved to tears there.
Over the course of our country’s history, tens of thousands of Americans–most of them young and with decades of life still ahead of them–made the ultimate sacrifice. Some were killed by enemy fire; others, tragically, by friendly fire. Some succumbed to accidents, such as a young man who was in boot camp with my Pop in 1923: He was joking around; mockingly jumping to attention, he jammed the butt of his rifle to the ground, and the rifle discharged a fatal bullet into his head. Many others perished from diseases, most notably the masses of doughboys killed by typhus in the trenches of World War I.
As we remember all those premature deaths resulting from service to their country, we must ask ourselves the inevitable questions about military service: Why? Or, more specifically: For what and whom?
First, the “what for”: In a word, liberty. As articulated in the immortal words of founding father Patrick Henry, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” This is the value system that millions of Americans have shared.
Millions who have served in the U.S. military have at least glimpsed that if there is nothing worth dying for, then there isn’t much worth living for. None of pagan philosopher Bertrand Russell’s cowardly cynicism “better red than dead” has befogged the hearts and minds of America’s heroes. From the Revolutionary War, through the problematic era of westward expansion and “manifest destiny,” through the bloody 20th century conflicts in which Americans fought to help French, British, Korean, and Indochinese people resist tyranny, liberty has been the animating principle, the raison d’être, of America’s armed services.
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This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Informing And Equipping Americans Who Love Freedom