When I entered Officer’s Training School our commander gave us the motto of the institution and what would be the key to our success or failure: “Cooperate and Graduate.” Every detail of daily life, from academics to athletics, from dormitory inspections, to drill and ceremony, was designed to elicit teamwork. Much of it seemed trivial or unrelated to our future as officers, but the opposite was the truth – teamwork would determine the success of any combat mission, and the thing that would save the most lives in war. Sixty million people died in WWII and the United Nations was founded in its wake because of a global awareness that nations that cannot talk to one another fall victim to rhetoric and propaganda that divides people and leads to conflict.
This Memorial Day we honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice so that others can be free – but this is a time where we as a nation are also flirting with ideas of self-destruction. Abraham Lincoln reminded us that “A house divided against itself, cannot stand,” but we have members of congress who have called for a separation of Red and Blue states (reminiscent of the Blue and Grey), and continue to remain in positions of leadership. We have allowed these same people to stay in office despite their support for a white supremacist insurrection. If they were in the military they would have been given an order to cease and desist and if they continued they would have been expelled. Their presence weakens our government and makes a mockery of the sacrifice of those who have given their lives for freedom.
Four years ago, former General and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis warned us in his resignation letter that he was leaving because the alliances necessary for the World Order since WWII were threatened by our own president. He later wrote that the 45th President was the first president in his lifetime dividing rather than trying to unite the American people. He was also the first president dividing rather than uniting the world democracies against autocrats. He publicly announced that NATO is obsolete, giving a green light for Vladimir Putin to continue his assault on territory once belonging to the Soviet Union. And the embrace of Neo-Nazis by our former Commander in Chief, brought the ire of another combat veteran, and POW, Senator John McCain, who told us that the 45th president “abased himself in front of a tyrant” in Helsinki and that we were witnessing the resurrection of ideas we thought we had thrown on the trash heap of history.
This Memorial Day, like every Memorial Day, we use ceremony to honor those who died for our freedom, but we dishonor them if we fail to preserve what they died defending. “Cooperate and graduate” is merely another way of saying E PLURIBUS UNUM, out of many, one fighting force, one nation, indivisible, constantly trying to form a more perfect union. How do we regain our former unity, our dedication to country over party? It starts with belief in the possible and a willingness to use every opportunity presented to love our neighbor.
There is a moment in American history that gives me hope. The year was 1913, the place was Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the occasion was the 50th anniversary of that bloody battle where so many had fallen to preserve this nation. It was a three-day encampment for veterans of the Civil War, now old men, coming together for a retreat. The culmination of the encampment was a reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. The former Confederates took their places on the far side of the field, and the Union soldiers amassed behind a wall on Cemetery Ridge. The Rebels started their charge and about half way across the field they let out the rebel yell – a collective groan went through the Union ranks, and the Yankees climbed over the wall and descended upon their former enemy, not in mortal combat, but in brotherly love. They embraced one another.
That embrace is the symbol of one of the greatest virtues of America, a virtue missing in so many parts of the world, the ability to bind up our wounds. Let that be our vision for this Memorial Day. If we could unite Blue and Grey after so much bloodshed, we can unite Red and Blue to continue this great work. If we truly want to honor our dead, we must rededicate ourselves to what they died for, and what President Lincoln reminded us in his own words of commemoration for fallen heroes, so that a nation conceived in liberty and based upon the proposition that all are created equal could long endure and not perish from the earth.