How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? . . . How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? . . . T[he Nixon A]dministration has done us the ultimate dishonor. They have attempted to disown us and the sacrifices we made for this country.
John Kerry, 1971During the 2004 Presidential election, John Kerry tried to distance himself from these comments, made in the passionate heat of anger he felt at the waste of life in pursuit of our on-going military operations in Vietnam. To this day, I wonder why. The questions, both at the time and subsequently, are the very questions we need to ask ourselves whenever we feel to urge to send our military as an instrument of policy.
Especially on this Memorial Day, as we remember those who, as Abraham Lincoln said, gave the last full measure of devotion, it might seem at the very least inappropriate, if not somehow dishonorable, to ask the question: Is it worth it? I understand the emotional turmoil that results from questioning the legitimacy of any military action; what if, it turns out, our men and women in uniform died for ignoble or useless reasons? Somehow, a verdict against the larger aims and purposes reflects upon those who died pursuing those aims.
The dead, however, are not silent. Anyone who has visited a cemetery on Memorial Day understands this. Standing above the bodies of those whose lives have been spent either on some distant shore, or perhaps even down the road - the military cemeteries in Virginia are a chorus of voices from the sons of the Confederacy - it is possible to hear the whispered question, "Was it worth it?"
I shall leave for the moment the judgment of the worth of any particular conflict. To say, whether at the time or later, that any war in which our troops participated may have been in pursuit of ends that were unjustifiable; or, perhaps, the means used to pursue certain ends were out of proportion to the stated objectives; to say these things is not a reflection upon those in uniform, who only carry out their orders to the best of their ability. Our troops, from the lowest private through the uniformed leaders of the various service branches, serve the Constitution and the civilians placed in offices of responsibility over them. We must always remember that questioning the propriety or wisdom of military action is a question of policy, over which the military has, at best, a consultative role.
Furthermore, these on-going demands from the fallen should serve as a warning to we who bear the burden of living, knowing we are here in no small part because they are no longer. When confronted with a situation in the world in which the possibility of sending our military in to harm's way, the first voices we should heed are those silenced by previous such decisions. Can we, as a people, answer those demands with anything like honesty and integrity? Do we, perhaps, owe our dead an apology for sacrificing them upon various altars other than those of national survival or integrity?
Ours is a country where the government, recent rhetoric to the contrary, is not a stranger or alien presence. We the people, despite abundant lack of interest or understanding, are potentially the most powerful single interest group there is. Whether in a time of national or international crisis or, perhaps, in pursuit of some humanitarian aim, we start to hear cries to send in our troops, the first question we need to answer is whether we can look at the flag-draped coffins without fear they are testimony against our decision to end their life this way. These are hard questions, which is not an argument against their being asked. We live as we do today in no small part because so many men and women have died on battlefields, asking nothing but to be remembered. Today is the day we honor that most basic request; in remembering, we face the hard reality of self-government, of being a people who deserve the sacrifices they have made.