We Fight

Like (I presume) every American, I today feel the weight, glory, and sheer spiritual magnitude of  Memorial Day.

I’m the son of a  WWII veteran; when I was eight (and while standing at a urinal in a boy’s bathroom at my elementary school, where apparently I used to do all my big thinking), I realized that I was too young to ever have to serve in Vietnam, and would more than likely be too old to serve by the time America got involved in another war.

Worked for me.

Not that many years later, I watched as American soldiers returned home from Vietnam.

Not exactly what you’d call pretty.

Freakin people.

We dare to want what we want, but balk at the true cost of it.

I was in my early thirties when the first George Bush decided we needed to lose the lives of at least some American soldiers in the deserts of the Middle East. When the United States Air Force launched the aerial bombardment campaign that began the Gulf War, the woman who lived in the apartment below my wife and me came knocking on our front door. She was an historian from Ireland who was teaching at a nearby university.

“Turn on your TV,” she said. “The Americans are doing it again.”

It was all I could do not to take back from her the super-cute kitten we’d given her not two days before.

Today the below has been on my mind. It’s the the breathtakingly poetic speech that Abraham Lincoln delivered on Thursday, November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the decisive Battle of Gettysburg. (To learn more, see the Wikipedia entry on the Gettysburg Address.)

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 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.

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  • Matthew Tweedell

    It is a brilliant speech, isn't it? To me it seems this address was quite a pivotal moment in many, many ways—from the then-current political atmosphere, to the history of this great nation and with it the world, and from Lincoln's own understanding of the universe and his place in it, to the march of Mercy and Truth on to the victory that is Life. It’s an oration of near-poetry while an example of political speechmaking par excellence.

  • Zoomer

    It always gives me the chills. But saddens me too, because it seems we as a nation are seeing our devotion decreased as time goes on.

  • Bri

    I thought you would be interested in knowing that your statement:

    I realized that I was too young to ever have to serve in Vietnam, and would more than likely be too old to serve by the time America got involved in another war.

    is a theme first put into writing by Alfred du Musset following the Napoleonic Wars in his work "Confession of a Child of the Century." (You are not obligated to know who Alfred de Musset is). Contemporaries of his, like Victor Hugo, had similar feelings and inter-war American writers, like Hemingway ans Steinbeck took the theme back up. (You are obligated to know Hugo, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.) Hemingway's "Lost Generation" is a term that may more appropriately attributed to Musset.

  • Robert Meek

    How we have lost our way. And oh, we so have lost our way. It pains me to see what we have become. Our Representatives in Congress spewing lies and hate at each other, some verbally attacking the President.

    I am 52 years old. I cannot remember a time, prior to these now, even during the chaos of Vietnam and the uprisings and protests, nor the instability of the work by MLK, Jr against racism, prejudice, and segregation, even in those times, I cannot recall knowing so openly, anyway, our Congressmen & women being us uncouth oafs without any sense of propriety.

    I fear we are truly lost.

  • Justin Rosario

    I know it's a bit of a quibble but your characterization of the first Gulf War as American aggression is pretty far off. I'm a bleeding heart liberal and even I acknowledge we needed to free Kuwait. Sure, we didn't go in for purely altruistic reasons. Saddam controlling Kuwait and threatening to invade Saudi Arabia presented an untenable position for the world and the US in particular.

    Despite the oil incentives, Kuwait was, and still is, a friendly nation if not a full fledged ally. Apparently we marked all of their oil freighters with US markings in order to give them the security of running under our colors. And that was BEFORE the Gulf war.

    So, either way, we would have been unable to stand aside while a lunatic overran Kuwait.

    So unless by "The Americans are doing it again", your friend actually meant "The Americans are freeing a sovereign nation from a genocidal dictator." I'm not really sure what she, and you, mean.

  • Trust me: I didn't, for one moment, characterize the first Gulf War as a matter of American aggression. I didn't even almost say anything like that. I wouldn't. You've misread. That TEACHER said that, not me.

  • Justin Rosario

    But you did say "Bush decided we needed to lose the lives of at least some American soldiers…"

    Coupling that statement with the Teacher's without making a distinction that you held a different opinion suggests, strongly, that you did think of the Gulf War as either unnecessary or wrong in some fashion.

  • But Bush DID decide exactly that. It's not a moral judgment, or any sort of subjective observation. It's just fact.

    But you make a good point. I'll go back and put in a line I'd taken out, right after the teacher thing.

    Coolio. Thanks.

  • Justin Rosario

    You Indian kitten giver!!! But seriously, that clarifies your position.immensely, I was getting mixed signals. I'm all for Bush bashing (good clean family fun!) but I have to give what little credit there is when it's due. Bush Sr. went in, did the job and got out. He even got other countries to foot most of the bill!

    I would still ask that teacher what, precisely, should we have done. Nothing? Asked nicely? Let China handle it? That's a fairly vindictive fantasy of mine. Let China handle it. Every time the US gets called evil or immoral, I think, "Really? Wait until China decides to pacify the region. They shoot their own people for dissidence, what do you think they'll do to YOU?" I know, it's petty but what can you do?

  • Appalachiana


    Your moments of revelation always seem to come in places like supply closets and urinals. Stay out from under your kitchen sink, the crawl space to your house, and the furnace room of your office building. Lightening bolts await you there.

  • Well, I'm afraid the Urinalicious Moment to which I here referred was more a revelation of MATH than it was anything else—but, yeah, you're right! What's up with that? And as a matter of fact, crawling around beneath our kitchen sink this past weekend I DID have something of a revelation, which was that I have a distinct–one might even say profound–fear of ever having to do any serious plumbing work. Not really a matter of theology or anything (or IS IT??), but good to know. Sort of.