It is a most moving privilege to have been invited to be with you today, which Dean Baxter knows very well indeed, knowing me, and by the same token, my appreciation for him grows with every meeting. Reverend sir, my deep thanks.
I should explain that vicariously and personally, I am a bit of history, I was born in April 1918, seven months before the end of World War I and in my early years heard World War I called the war to end all wars. It was no such thing. The policies adopted after its ending laid the groundwork for World War II, in which I served as a United States Marine. I am a veteran of the Battle for Iwo Jima.
I did not serve on active duty in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, or any of the constant and sometimes grossly misnamed peace-keeping ventures we all have heard about, perhaps because young people near and dear to us are in the Armed Services. I say young people, because most of those who die in combat, whatever you choose to call it, are young, often as young as their late teens. I work with young people in my church, love them and mourn their tragedies.
My experiences on Iwo Jima, though luckier than for many, made it clear beyond my ever forgetting, that armed combat is merciless, cruel, dirty and soul searing, and rips human beings to pieces, not just physically but often psychologically.
So, I beg you to join me in extending our memorial prayers and remembrances beyond those who have died physically, richly as they merit and have earned our sorrowful gratitude for their sacrifice, but also for those who have in effect died in their minds and hearts, and carried lethal wounds ever after. They too, I hope you will agree, merit our prayers and our gratitude for their services to our country.
There is a third category of combat casualties, in addition to the two I have just mentioned, Those are the casualties in unpopular or losing causes. They also died doing their duty. Remember that at the beginning of this month of May, there was considerable comment in the media, including many pictures, of the fact that it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the surrender of Saigon and the inglorious end of the Vietnam War. Inglorious for the United States, that is.
That war cost us something like 58,000 deaths in battle on the American side, and a strikingly higher count suffered by our allies in South Vietnam.
Then please, let me recall to you the last stanza of our National Anthem, the words to which were written during the War of 1812 by an American of both patriotism and piety. In the first stanza he saw the broad stripes and bright stars of our flag gallantly streaming by the light of the rockets red glare and the bombs bursting in air, and asked his famous question;
O say does that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free,
and the home of the brave?
The last verse praises eventual victory, and says:
Blest with victory and peace
may the Heaven rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and
preserved us a Nation.
Then the words go on, and please take them in:
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just
and this be our motto, “In God is Our Trust”;
and the Star Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave,
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.
Let me repeat: “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just.”
The Vietnam War has been widely regarded as anything but a cause that was just, and at its end, the Star Spangled Banner did not wave in triumph, but rather drooped in defeat.
Why do I recall all this to you? Because for some time after the end of that war returning veterans were often treated badly when they got home, in complete contrast to the way my fellow veterans and I were treated when we returned from World War II; and their casualties were not honored then, as we are doing today, despite the fact that their high death toll included many exceptionally fine young men, like the sons of two close friends of mine–which, to say the least, brought the matter close to home for me.
The remarkable black wall bearing the names of the Vietnam dead, and more understanding, has done much to heal the distress, as has the passage of time.
A final word on all this from me, though I devoutly hope not from you who hear or read my words.
I am afraid that however devoutly we pray, in the words of the Gospel according to Matthew, that we may love our enemies, we will engage in the future in many other military excursions which will involve casualties, deaths, whether these be in the small numbers of Desert Storm, or much higher numbers. Those involved will be following orders. Some will be civilians. Some of these ventures in playing a leading role in world politics, if experience and history are any guide, will be regarded by a number of our citizens as far from just causes, and all will be subject, particularly if increasing numbers of American lives are lost, to intense scrutiny and criticism.
My point at the end is this: whether our cause is just or not, those who die doing the duty demanded of them by their country deserve our gratitude, and services of remembrance in our hearts. Rendering that honor and expression of gratitude in this holy place, a national symbol for us all, is meet and right.
O thus be it ever, everywhere, from sea to shining sea. Amen.