Last year on Memorial Day, my wife, daughter and I were touring Cambridge, England. We took a bus ride three miles out of the city to the U.S. military cemetery there–one of 25 American burial grounds administered by the U.S. government on foreign territory. Cambridge University showed their deep gratitude for their American ally in World War II by donating 30 acres to serve as a final resting place for 3,812 Americans stationed in England who lost their lives in the war.
There is also a wall in this cemetery. Inscribed on it are the names of 5,126 additional American servicemen whose bodies were never recovered, including President Kennedy’s older brother, Joseph Jr., and the famous American bandleader, Glenn Miller.
There is nothing quite like the solemnity and unique peacefulness that pervades the atmosphere of military cemeteries. These hallowed places, consecrated to the memory of fallen soldiers, sailors, and airmen, touch the soul. These military cemeteries elicit the same otherworldly feeling whether in the English countryside or at Arlington National Cemetery across the river from Washington. I have never visited the vast cemetery at Normandy, France, where 9,387 Americans are buried, but friends who have were moved to tears there.
Over the course of our country’s history, tens of thousands of Americans–most of them young and with decades of life still ahead of them–made the ultimate sacrifice. Some were killed by enemy fire; others, tragically, by friendly fire. Some succumbed to accidents, such as a young man who was in boot camp with my Pop in 1923: He was joking around; mockingly jumping to attention, he jammed the butt of his rifle to the ground, and the rifle discharged a fatal bullet into his head. Many others perished from diseases, most notably the masses of doughboys killed by typhus in the trenches of World War I.
As we remember all those premature deaths resulting from service to their country, we must ask ourselves the inevitable questions about military service: Why? Or, more specifically: For what and whom?
First, the “what for”: In a word, liberty. As articulated in the immortal words of founding father Patrick Henry, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” This is the value system that millions of Americans have shared.
Millions who have served in the U.S. military have at least glimpsed that if there is nothing worth dying for, then there isn’t much worth living for. None of pagan philosopher Bertrand Russell’s cowardly cynicism “better red than dead” has befogged the hearts and minds of America’s heroes. From the Revolutionary War, through the problematic era of westward expansion and “manifest destiny,” through the bloody 20th century conflicts in which Americans fought to help French, British, Korean, and Indochinese people resist tyranny, liberty has been the animating principle, the raison d’être, of America’s armed services.
It is the achievement of liberty that has blessed and prospered Americans, that has brought joy and fulfillment to our lives. It is liberty that made America “the land of the free” in practice, not just in word. The world’s people recognized this by “voting with their feet” and immigrating here.
For decades, leftists have preached that war is the greatest human evil. It isn’t. As horrifically destructive as war is, it is not the most lethal activity of human beings. The late scholar, R. J. Rummel, spent decades studying “democide”—the carnage that brutal governments inflict on those under their rule. Democide killed more than five times as many people during the 20th century than did wars between countries. In fact, even more millions of people would have been killed or had their lives blighted by the dreary vapidity of life under tyranny were it not for Americans thwarting the expansionist designs of such democidal maniacs as Hitler and Stalin.
This begins to answer the other part of our question “Why”: For whom did our soldiers die? Obviously, it wasn’t for themselves. They laid down their lives so that others—originally Americans, but later, people of many nationalities—might live and enjoy the blessings of liberty. Scores, if not hundreds of millions, of people are not only alive, but are free today, because Americans took up arms and laid down their lives for the sake of others. The Bible says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, ESV). Those fallen heroes, whom we remember on Memorial Day, indeed loved much.
God bless our departed compatriots. Let us honor, salute, and remember what they gave up so that we could live in liberty.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.