Wednesday, November 11, 2009

With Gratitude on Veterans Day

When he was 82 years old, General Douglas MacArthur was presented with the Sylvanus Thayer Award at West Point. Upon accepting it, he addressed the cadets without a prepared text and without notes. Speaking reverently about the American soldier, he said:

"My estimate of him was formed on the battlefield many, many years ago, and has never changed. I regarded him then as I regard him now – as one of the world’s noblest figures, not only as one of the finest military characters but also as one of the most stainless. His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty he gave – all that mortality can give…when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism; he belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom; he belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements…From one end of the world to the other he has drained deep the chalice of courage…The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training – sacrifice."

Those words are just as true now, with our men and women returning from the war zones of the Middle East, as they were when MacArthur spoke them 47 years ago. But there has been a troubling shift in the way the American soldier is viewed by his countrymen.

When MacArthur spoke, the heroism exhibited at Guadalcanal and Pork Chop Hill was fresh in the minds of America, and students throughout the land were taught about their forefathers’ valor at Bunker Hill and Antietam. The vast majority of Americans looked upon soldiers with immense respect, as courageous defenders of liberty who, in MacArthur’s words, held the nation’s destiny in their hands.

Less than a decade later, many of the soldiers returning from Vietnam were spat upon and falsely depicted as “baby killers.”

Within a generation, military service went from being a duty that was performed by most American men to being one that was performed by a small minority. In turn, the country has become one where a shrinking percentage of the population puts their lives on the line to defend the rights of an increasingly unappreciative majority. Many of us take our freedom for granted, blind to the fact that were it not for those soldiers who are willing to risk their lives in the line of duty, we would not be free to speak our minds without fear of prosecution, or to pursue our life's goals as we see fit, or to make a choice about whether or how to worship God.

Today is Veterans Day. Modern media and schools have greatly de-emphasized this once prominent holiday, but the rest of us don’t have to follow their lead. To those of you who have answered the nation's call and served in our armed forces, I say: Thank You.

Note: This post was first published one year ago. The only change made to it is to reflect that another year has passed since MacArthur's speech.

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