The following is a speech given at the Memorial Day services for the city of Ashland, Ohio at the Ashland Cemetery on May 31, 2004:
Thank you. I am humbled and deeply honored to be here.
Memorial Day is a day unlike any other. Since 1868 we have come together in our communities, towns and villages, to place flowers and flags on the graves of those who have given their last full measure of devotion to our country. We have come here to remember and honor those who have done their duty, as God allowed them to see that duty.
Let me cite a few facts—incomplete facts—before I say anything else, because facts have a way of not allowing you to ignore them. Facts are brutal.
- In 80 months of the Revolutionary War there were 10,623 casualties, with 4,435 deaths, or about 55 Americans dying each month of the war.
- In 37 months of the Korean War there were 136,935 casualties, with 33,651 deaths, or about 909 Americans dying in combat each month of the war.
- In 90 months of the Vietnam War there were 211, 471 casualties, with 47,369 deaths, or about 526 Americans dying in combat each month of the war.
- In 1 month of the Gulf War there were 760 casualties, with 293 deaths, or 148 Americans dying in combat during the month of the war.
- In 14 months of fighting in Iraq, there have been 4,685 casualties, with 803 deaths, or 57 Americans dying each month of the war.
Those Americans who died in all these wars—and more could be mentioned—did their duty, and we know who they are, as we visit the cemeteries and note the dates of their shortened lives on the headstones. We know their loved ones, their wives and mothers, and their children, and the friends who shall always miss them.
But let me mention another war, the Big One—ominously numbered with a two, not only because there was a previous war that was thought to be a world war, but because reasonable men rightly assumed there might be more such huge conflicts that would literally embrace the globe—World War II. This was a time when good and evil contended for the world. The largest things were at stake.
It is this war that I want to especially note and remember here today.
- In 48 months of World War II there were 1,078,162 American casualties, with 407,316 death, or 6,639 Americans dying in combat each month of the war.
These are staggering numbers. And the recriminations even during the war at home from the politicians and press were relentless, as it always seems to be in a free regime. But Americans in the field never faltered. Even after 19,000 American troops died at the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944, or the 13,000 that died—most in hand-to-hand combat—taking Okinawa, the Americans persevered. Their courage and sacrifice knew no bounds. And under a steadfast commander-in-chief, Franklin Roosevelt and his generals, Eisenhower, Bradley, MacArthur, Patton, we would have victory.
And we all know, and the world well knows—even the French cannot forget—that without our contribution to the war, civilization as we know it, would not have survived.
At a cocktail party in Washington less than a year ago, in the middle of the diplomatic haggling over Iraq, an American Congressman said to a high-ranking French diplomat who was—in his sophisticated and French way—criticizing American policy in Iraq for being self-interested: “Do you speak German?” The French diplomat, taken aback and not really understanding the question said, “No.” To which, the Congressman said, “You are welcome.”
The French would not have survived if we hadn’t entered the war, nor would have the British, nor would have civilized Europe. And in the end, perhaps we wouldn’t have either since aggressive tyrannies would have controlled continents to our West and East. This is what it means to say that the dead shall not have died in vain. But—Thank God—not all our soldiers died, millions of the 16 million who wore a uniform survived and some of them are with us today.
These are the men who survived the long war and the many hard battles, and in their honor—and the honor of those who didn’t survive—a grateful nation built a Memorial in Washington that has just opened.
Look at these men and think of the ones that are buried near.
It is hard to tell that once they were soldiers in a great cause, because after they won the war they hung up their weapons as monuments, and returned quickly to civilian life and prospered as free men should.
Winston Churchill once said of us: “The United States is like a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lit under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate.”
And, when he heard that the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Churchill—who was willing to lead lonely Britain in the fight against the Nazis even though victory was uncertain—famously said that that night he “slept the sleep of the saved” because now he knew that victory was certain because America had been wronged and he knew the American character.
Yet, America was not prepared and we were hesitant to get in it, but once we were attacked and it became clear that heads of state had become gangsters, the fire was lit under this gigantic boiler and there was never any doubt about the outcome. It is amazing what free men can do once they decide to act. The peaceful democracy mobilized, men and women labored, toy factories now produced the stuff of war. The citizens then became warriors, and great deeds were commonplace. Even heroic deeds were seen.
These citizen-warriors are among us today, and some are sitting here. Look at these men again. Look at what they are, what they have been, and what good they have done for their country and the cause of freedom around the world. Honor them and their comrades, whose graves we visit today. Look to them for guidance—guidance for the present and guidance for the future. We shouldn’t look at the era in which they toiled and sacrificed as if we were visiting a museum or an archaeological site. We should look at what they did, and how they did it and, in doing so, honor them by imitating their courage and their sacrifice and their excellence. Their accomplishments are astonishing to us. And we should learn from them.
They have left a legacy of freedom, and they taught their children and their children’s children the value of sacrifice, and work, and virtue, the necessary conditions of freedom—and they taught us the love of country. These soldiers have become our teachers, their presence here, and the words and deeds of their lives, remind us of human excellence, of the things for which we stand, of the courage that is necessary to maintain those things. They taught us what it means to be a citizen of the last best hope of earth.
We should look at their courage, their resoluteness, and their actions. They didn’t expect much from life, were without resources, save only their wise heads and stout hearts. They thought themselves ordinary, and ended up being great because much was expected of them. They didn’t let the free world down.
The Americans going into World War II came from the farms and the cities, left their plows and their factories, and these amateurs became deadly warriors. They were then—and still are—perhaps oddly, given our history, always underestimated by the enemy. They think we are lazy and soft and undisciplined and none too smart. They think this because we have made an open society, we are lovers of liberty and equality, and we think that free men should be prosperous—and we sometimes are too trusting and naïve. And, as a result, sometimes we are unprepared. But our enemies then didn’t understand the character of free men. They still don’t.
Once we Americans have been wronged, or held in contempt, or attacked in peace, we citizens, just ordinary folks—you know, like U.S. Grant, who in 1860 was a clerk, and Tecumseh Sherman, who was a bank teller—we become warriors, and we define victory as absolute annihilation of our adversaries. This is what we did in World War II. We are a dangerous people.
Knowing how tough we are in war—how energetic and creative, how organized and full of technological wizardry, how hard driving and relentless in our pursuit of victory, how dogged and disciplined and courageous—you would think that our enemies would think twice before unslipping the dogs of war. Our enemies are suicidal.
One thing is certain, as the historian Victor Davis Hanson has said, “Thank God we don’t have to fight anyone like ourselves!!”
And, after the well-deserved victory in this World War—like the generous people that we are—we helped rebuild their countries; we wrote constitutions for the defeated, and insisted that their regimes turn toward democracy and rights. Instead of enslaving the defeated, we set them free. At their finest hour these Americans treated their vanquished with magnanimity. It is no wonder that the 20th century has come to be called the American Century. For this Americans will be remembered until the last generations.
How is it possible to honor such men, both the dead and living?
Perhaps we cannot do any better than to call you the Greatest Generation of the greatest country in the world.
Perhaps we should make certain that your stories are told to the young.
Perhaps we should try to imitate both your purposes and lives, in both peace and war.
Perhaps we should just sincerely thank you for making sure that this island of liberty would continue.
Perhaps we should just say this, along with Abraham Lincoln: “Gold is good in its place; but living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.”
We are in your debt and we thank you. May God always bestow His blessings upon you.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.