God and soldier, we adore, in time of danger, not before.
The danger passed and all things righted, God is forgotten and the soldier slighted.
- Rudyard Kipling
Two and a quarter centuries ago, the educated, the wealthy and the privileged of the American Colonies were risking their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to gather together in Philadelphia, that they might create something heretofore unseen on this earth.
What they created was not, in practice, a perfect union, for there were those whose rights would not be recognized fully in law for generations to come. But it was, indeed, a "more perfect" union, and it was established on the unshakable premise that we are endowed with rights granted not by our government but by our Creator. The function of this new government was simply to recognize, acknowledge and protect those God-given rights. No more, no less.
Through all of America's great wars, we have had an indispensable resource — the grateful soldier. The grateful soldier knows that the rights God has granted him can be taken away. He doesn't desire war. Indeed, he fears and detests the idea of battle; but in the end he knows that the alternative is unacceptable.
At 19, my father became a grateful soldier in the last war America was actually allowed to win. Like virtually every young American male of "The Greatest Generation," he was a part of the effort that stopped Fascism dead in its tracks before it could dominate the world. At 22, stationed in England, he was assigned to the unit that planned the greatest military assault the world has ever seen: D-Day, June 6, 1944. As an enlisted man, he suffered a non-combat injury that kept him out of the actual invasion. The man who replaced him was one of the first to fall at Omaha Beach.
My father was fortunate. He returned home to the blessings of the liberty he had defended. He and my mother raised four children and lived together until natural death parted them after 53 years of marriage. This weekend, as I stood looking at the headstone at their grave, I thought the blessings of liberty he and his comrades provided for me.
Many did not come home. Beneath the soil of Europe lie the remains of hundreds of thousands of grateful soldiers. They were our grandfathers and fathers and uncles and brothers. They were the sons of farmers and bankers, rich men and poor. They were the fathers of young children who would never know them. They, like their grateful brethren of wars past, made the greatest sacrifice a man can make. Sometimes, on occasions such as this, we remember them. Too often, we take their sacrifices for granted.
We owe the grateful soldier more than we can ever repay. But much more than that, we owe the greatest reverence to God, to whom the grateful soldier paid homage with his blood in the name of liberty. What benevolent power could give a nation the humility and the will to set an enemy free after a great and terrible war? Unlike virtually every other nation that has ever existed, America stands alone in granting liberty to its vanquished. Germany and Japan today are great and mighty economic powers, and their people are better off than at any time in their history, thanks to the generosity of America.
The grateful soldier has fought and died in all of America's wars. He carried a musket at Concord. He commanded a regiment at Gettysburg. He flew a biplane over France in 1917. He lies in a watery grave at the bottom of Pearl Harbor and he assaulted beaches at Normandy. He fought and bled and lost limbs and died in the freezing cold of Korea, the steaming rice patties of Vietnam, the smoldering deserts of Iraq, and the jagged mountains of Afghanistan.
On Memorial Day, as we travel and barbeque and watch fireworks displays, we would do well to consider Kipling's lament and to contemplate the blessings of God and the sacrifices of America's grateful soldiers.