As part of my teaching duties at West Point, I took cadets on a study tour of the World War II battlefields in Normandy, France. The first stop is the cemetery on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach. It is hard not to realize who pays the price for fighting for us. Walking the rows of crosses and stars of David is an unending repetition of private, infantry, private, infantry, private, infantry, sergeant, private, private …
For the young cadets, it was a powerful lesson in leadership, a reminder that their decisions in battle were far weightier than the costs of their own lives. Every decision they made might add to the row, so no decision, no sacrifice should be taken lightly.
For the rest of us, there is a lesson as well: Be thankful for the freedoms won–and who won them.
Few topics in our society are more troubled than how a nation remembers. Few would dispute the practice to place flags on the memorials of the fallen–a tradition rooted in the post-Civil War practice called “Decoration Day.” Beyond that response, Americans are often never of one mind. Each generation has its own answer, and our expression of the value of service is shaped by many sentiments.
When he commanded U.S. troops during the war with Mexico, General Winfield Scott returned with $150,000 paid by Mexico City on the threat of ransacking the capital. He extorted the money because it was the only way he could guarantee that his boys were taken care of. He used the money to pay the troops and buy supplies, and he offered the rest to Congress for an Old Soldier’s Home for homeless veterans.
Conversely, when politicians looked at the 2 million Union veterans after the Civil War, they saw 2 million votes. Congress approved an overgenerous pension plan that quickly became mired in fraud, graft, and patronage until it absorbed 40 percent of the federal budget.
After World War I, the doughboys came home from the horrors of mustard gas, machine guns, and aerial bombardment to find nothing waiting for them. While veterans earned a dollar a day in France, War Department employees received $12 a day at their comfortable desks, federal civil servants received $240 annual bonuses, and assembly line employees saw their wages double. The veterans got a Veterans’ Bureau run by a former presidential campaign worker who went to prison for corruption.
Americans treated World War II veterans like the greatest generation. There were about 16 million men and women in uniform during the Second World War–the war touched every American family. We all cared.
Those returning from Vietnam encountered a mixture of hostility and indifference. Even trying to build a memorial to the fallen in Washington, D.C., proved a protracted and heart-wrenching experience.
Part of the problem is the temptation to wrap the experience of service members in a story: good war, bad war, love the troops, hate the war. We should honor the military for service and sacrifice regardless of our politics. And, we should not measure how we care according to what government does. Our service men and women are ours. They come from our community. What we do is the most important act of all.
There are many organizations out there that honor the fallen and serve the families of those affected by loss. One worth noting is the Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors, or TAPS. Another amazing group is the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which ensures that every child of a special operations warrior who falls on active duty has an opportunity for a college education.
These are the kinds of organizations that make a difference. They honor the fallen by helping their families. They make us a better nation by showing us how to care–and what to do. They bring real meaning to Memorial Day.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Deputy Director, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.