“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” —Abraham Lincoln
Next week will mark the 156th anniversary of the Gettysburg address. The speech was not about the fallen but about the moral obligation their sacrifice creates for the living. In the unique case of the United States of America, soldiers fight for an ideal and for a nation based on that ideal. Our nation is not a mere emergent property of race, ethnic faction, religion, and/or territorial accident. The existence of our nation is a continuous conscious choice that must be renewed. Lincoln tells us to be the nation that was worth dying for. We must live in justice and freedom with the courage of imagination and innovation that is our national character.
The Union troops at Gettysburg had endured two years or terrible generalship, sequential defeats, and a treacherous political climate. Many in the North openly asked why risk dying for blacks? Why fight to remain in a union with those God-rotting Southerners? Nevertheless, the Army of the Potomac rallied to a principled vision of this nation. They continued a tradition going back to the Revolution in which the honor, steadfastness, loyalty, accomplishment, and commitment of American soldiers invariably greatly exceeds that of their elected leaders.
Contrary to a lot of opinions issued at the time we ended in the draft in 1973, our current military has more genuine diversity than any college campus, more professionalism and integrity than any other segment of American life and a commitment to duty and excellence that none of our elected leaders in recent memory have been worthy to command. While government, media, business, academia and even the sciences fall into disrepute, our military rises in public esteem because we can still see the best of ourselves in those young people and know that the American project is still alive and sustainable. The claim on our consciences by the fallen is as strong or stronger than ever.
I confess that have mixed feelings whenever I hear someone say “thank you for your service!” to a uniformed American. It might be a twinge of jealousy because in 1972-75 when I was in uniform, I was called “baby-killer” more than once and can’t recall anyone ever thanking me in the way that is common now. Also, those now-common ‘thank you’s’ often sound a bit breezy as if the speaker does not grasp the full moral weight of the debt of gratitude that Lincoln articulated. Nevertheless, it is a positive thing to affirm honor, duty, and the presumptive willingness to assume the risk and to give the full measure. It is good that we do feel a common bond with each other when we hear that gratitude expressed to one of our soldiers.
The curse of our age is the wave of morally stunted anti-Lincolns who deny the goodness of our national inheritance and would thus have us believe that everyone who ever who the uniform was in service to evil or, at best, a sucker. They are conducting an ongoing attack on what Lincoln recognized as the moral core of our nation, and they make a conscious effort to dissolve the bonds to one another and to those who went before. What Lincoln commended to us, a shared sense of obligation to build great lives in a great nation filled with mutual respect for the project that is our shared inheritance is a good place to stand in opposition to the purveyors of rot. We all need to spend more time there.Published in