“Paying the ultimate sacrifice for our country” — I dislike that expression. We hear the phrase every Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and sometimes on the Fourth of July, as if the majority of us age 60 and younger know its meaning from personal experience. I know that I don’t. To me, whenever I hear the words, especially from the mouths of non-veterans, the expression sounds slightly hollow no matter how respectful and well-intended. Can the emotional pain of family survivors be packaged so antiseptically in a phrase? Let me answer my own question: “No.”
A few months ago, on May 29, 2017, President Kennedy would have been 100 years old, 56 years removed from perhaps his most famous inspirational quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” I was only four years old then, but his words resonated with me in the years that followed. His challenge was the ultimate patriotic challenge for my generation, and yet, what have I sacrificed for the privilege of being an American? We are by no means close to perfect, but our aspirational values are part of our DNA, even when we, as a society, fall painfully short. Hearts and minds may not change overnight, or even over generations. But the arc of the moral universe truly does bend towards justice — and America is living proof. I simply wish that the arc bent faster for those who continue to suffer without equality.
Every generation has its cross to bear. For our founding fathers, they assembled in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1776 and put their lives at risk by voting to commit treason. For subsequent generations, one has only to visit Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to appreciate and be grateful for those who truly sacrificed for the values of our country. Who hasn’t experienced the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier without looking out at sea upon sea of white crosses and asking: “Could I do that?” For my generation, the risks were distinctly different and less existential. The Vietnam War and compulsory draft struck fear in the hearts and minds of so many young men and their families, while we simultaneously questioned the war’s morality and justification.
My visit to Arlington still haunts me. I felt unworthy. More fundamentally, I didn’t have to search within myself to answer the “Could I do that?” question because the Vietnam War ended in 1975, just months before my graduation from Bellingham High School. I was fortunate, or so I thought, selfishly.
The very next summer, I was hired by a local pyrotechnic to help put on the fireworks display at Civic Stadium as part of our country’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. As I laid on my back, looking upward from directly underneath the awesome bursts of color, the ground shook beneath me as the mortars shot into the darkening sky overhead. Unexpectedly, my thoughts went to the Vietnam War, my freedom and my future — and I began to quietly, but spontaneously sing our national anthem, by myself, in the midst of the explosions of celebration. I was overcome with gratefulness for having been spared my fears of war by others, many of whom were reluctant warriors.
For over 40 years now, I have asked myself each year, “Could I do that?” I will never know. But I do know that no American since 1973 has been forced involuntarily into the service of our country, either in military or non-military roles — and I question whether America is better for it. The foundation of our country was built upon being willing to sacrifice for our values. What if my generation, and subsequent generations, had been required instead to serve and sacrifice a year of our lives for our country in non-military, public service roles. Would we be better off today? Would the arc of justice have bent more quickly? Would the pride of being American mean more than the color of our skin, our ethnic origin, our religious beliefs or our sexual orientation? Would today’s opiate epidemic even exist?
War is seldom the answer. However, as a parent of two daughters, and hopefully many grandchildren to come, I worry for our collective futures, individually, as families, and as a country. Where is the unifying, national teachable moment in our collective lives? Where is the parenting tool that all parents, if we are honest with ourselves, know is needed today?
Paying the ultimate sacrifice shouldn’t be the litmus test for being an American, but sacrifice should be lest we forget the meaning of the word — to give up freedom for our freedom.
The line forms behind me. I can do that.