I have just returned from my trip to Washington D.C. and had the opportunity to visit the Vietnam Memorial, along with the Korean War and WW II Memorials. It is sobering to stand in front of those black pieces of marble etched with the names of the over 52,000 American men and women who gave up their lives in that far away part of Southeast Asia wearing the uniform of our country. I admit to shedding tears as I recognized the 62 names of classmates who never returned to their families and friends, who never had a chance to have wives and children, careers and triumphs, the spectrum of adult experiences. I also recalled the faces of the survivors, those friends who made it back, but lacked the spirit of youth in their eyes, as well as the damaged bodies and psyches I encountered during my rotations at the VA hospital during my medical school training. Anyone who has been involved in a war knows that there is no glory involved, only fear, suffering, deprivation and unimaginable misery. Some will argue, perhaps rightfully so, that no war is ever justified. To me, at least, the only possible justification exists when our personal freedoms are threatened.
I was born in a time when freedom was elusive to absent in a large part of our globe, in a country where a knock on the door or the unexpected ringing of the phone brought terror based on very justified fears, and the only freedom one dared dream about was being allowed to exist in obscurity by staying under the radar of the ever watchful secret police and their countless informants, some of whom could have been, or in fact were, people you knew well. To those who grew up in the luxury of free society, these feelings are beyond the boundaries of experience, and cannot be truly imagined, much less viscerally acknowledged. To those who lived through them, they can never be forgotten.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect to those of us who were not always blessed with the freedoms the rest of us take as our birthright is the knowledge of how easily and rapidly freedom can be lost. My birthplace had the traditional freedoms of a Western society throughout all my parents’ lives until shortly before the time of my birth. Throughout history, the loss of freedom has occurred as often from within as without. The desire to have power over others is a primal drive, and well recognized by the men who framed our Constitution. The system of checks and balances they designed, brilliant in its conception, can only endure as long as there exists a populace dedicated to the principles the document embodies.
We are about to celebrate our Memorial Day with military planes streaking in formation across skies hazy from countless barbecues, as speeches are made and parades march under unfurled banners. For those who have served, as well as those whose family members sacrificed limb and lives, the price of our freedoms are forever etched in hearts and minds. For those brought up in a tradition of service, the memory remains that the price of freedom is dear. The paradox of freedom is that those who desire it the most must also be willing to subjugate some of their personal desires to see it achieved.
The world is a complex, complicated, and often frightening place. I can understand the desire to hide in the cocoon of daily life, of carpools and groceries, of work and play, and ignore the whole messy, confusing affair. Let the professionals, the politicians, the generals worry about what’s happening in the world, while we concentrate on our own turf. Unfortunately, this road, by which we abdicate responsibility to others, leads to the morass in which we are currently embroiled. The man was right – the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. So we must remain vigilant, not only of our enemies, but of those to whom we entrust our daily freedoms. We must not, can not allow our fears of the known or unknown to seduce us into turning those freedoms over to a perceived strong select few who claim to know what is good for us, and promise us security in exchange for giving up power over our own lives. Too many through history have done this. Too many suffered and died as a result of their mistake. Freedom cannot be defined by the absence of bad things – slavery, fear, subjugation. It needs to be defined by positives, by action. But what can we do, you plaintively ask? We can educate ourselves to the issue affecting our lives. We can educate our children so they understand the history of this great nation, both the good and the bad. We can be willing to serve to sustain the causes in which we believe, and at the same time allow for, and demand intelligent discourse from those whose belief is different than our own, as well as from those we have chosen to lead us. We can attempt to instill in our children the values and ideals on which all free societies are founded, and which our Constitution helped codify. We can teach them that there is a difference between patriotism and nationalism, that loving your country is not the same as blind acceptance or support of any governmental policy. We can resist the temptation to demonize those who oppose us while we are struggling to hold true to the core principles of our beliefs. We can and should encourage, demand that everyone give of themselves in the form of some national service for a period of their life. It’s the only way we can be exposed in a one on one setting to those whose ideas, opinions and backgrounds are different than our own. We must demand accountability not only from our leadership, but also from the press and the media, not to sink to the lowest denominator, but to help raise the level of discourse in all walks of life from mud slinging to enlightening. We must teach and practice respect for the persons and property of our citizens, along with this planet, and those with whom we share it. And finally, we must never forget those men and women who have sacrificed their lives for us along with those who have served in the past, or are now serving in the military of our country. Honor, courage, sacrifice may sound like outmoded words in this jaded age of ours, but it’s up to us to make them relevant again. We need to ensure that those we place in positions of power are not allowed to waste these precious young lives by committing them to causes in which there is no winnable military objective and no national consensus that military intervention is the right path to pursue.