Memorial Day serves as a holiday for backyard grilling, first taste of summertime activities and having fun. The actual “memorial” part of it is remembered by a few canned patriotic speeches delivered by political leaders and a flurry of social media graphics thanking those who served. Today, President Obama, in a shallow, face-saving measure to deflect from the VA scandal fall-out, made a surprise trip to Afghanistan to visit US troops, the political motives glaringly obvious. In the scheme of American holidays, Memorial Day fades from our memories quickly, unremembered and afar, most don’t even spare a thought for the sacrifices made to secure their liberty. Do people even think about “liberty”?
Kinnison, in part, commented yesterday:
“Someone once said, “America is better-served by its armed forces than it deserves.” Early in the War on Terror a wounded Marine in the very first “Wounded Warrior” barracks at Camp Lejeune, NC, wrote on the white board in the passageway, “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war. America is at the mall…””
Sadly, this seems to be an accurate assessment, with fewer and fewer of our leaders having any military service or interest in learning about those who sacrificed so much. In our culture of self-entitlement and fatuous idolization of shameless, self-promoting celebrities, it’s easy to lose hope for America’s future. Let’s commit to remember our true American heroes as Minta beautifully states:
“A greater gratitude than we can here express.
Here fallen heroes lie.
The ones we’ve come to honor,
And celebrate their lives.
They were the ones who paid –
In Lincoln’s words –
“The last full measure of devotion.””
JK offered a comment yesterday with just a link, no explanation. This link transports you to Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for more than 400,000 of our country’s military heroes. One such hero at Arlington, General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, was the most famous American military leader of his generation and yet it’s doubtful more than a very few Americans would even recognize his name.
General Pershing was the most famous American general in World War I. He took a decidedly haphazardly organized US Armed Forces and turned it into a 2 million strong integrated modern fighting force in World War I (further reading, “US Army in the World War 1917-1919, Organization of the American Expeditionary Force”). His accomplishments fill many books written about his remarkable military achievements and he alone received the title “General of the Armies”, the highest rank in the US Army while still alive. General George Washington received that title posthumously. Words like cold, reserved, stubborn appear frequently in descriptions of General Pershing, but beneath that stern mask was a man who sacrificed a great deal to serve his country; a man who cared deeply for his family, his soldiers, his country.
In 1915 while serving in the Army at Fort Bliss, Pershing’s wife and three daughters perished in a house fire at their home at the Presidio of San Francisco. The 1948 NY Times obituary account recounts:
“On Aug. 27, 1915, there came the great tragedy of Pershing’s life. The general was called to the telephone at headquarters.
“Telegram for you, sir,” said the telephone orderly.
“Yes?” responded the General.
“Shall I–shall I–read it to you, sir?” the orderly asked, haltingly.
“Yes,” said General Pershing.
Again the orderly hesitated.
“Go ahead,” said Pershing.
And then the orderly read him the message telling of the death of his wife and three daughters–all his family except his son Warren–in a fire at their quarters in the Presidio. Warren alone had been saved by a maid and was reported to be in serious condition in the Army hospital.
“Is that all–is that everything?” Pershing asked when the orderly had completed the message.
“Yes, sir,” said the orderly.
Pershing left his duties only long enough to see to the burial of his family, left his son Warren with his sister in Lincoln, Neb., and returned, his hair whitened and his face lined, to his post.”
General Pershing could have called it quits on the Army life at this point, because he had acquired a law degree in 1893 and had many other options. He chose to continue serving our country in uniform.
While browsing through a book I purchased recently (“War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars”, Andrew Carroll), a letter written by General Pershing during WWI to his 9-year-old son, living with an aunt in Nebraska, offers a glimpse of the man behind that cold mask. Luckily, the letter was located quickly online here. This excerpt speaks to that higher purpose that so easily gets drowned out by our pop culture:
“I want you to come so that you yourself can see something of the army and see something of France. I want you to know while you are still a boy something of the fine patriotism that inspires the American soldiers who are fighting over here for the cause of liberty. They are fighting as you know against Germany and her Allies to prevent the rulers of Germany from seizing territory that does not belong to them and from extending their rule over the people of other governments who do not wish to be ruled by Germany. I might add that in order to do this the German army, under orders from the Ruler of Germany, has committed most serious crimes, and for that also we are fighting in order to punish them.
I want you to see some of the battlefields of France with me, over which the American soldiers have fought in carrying out the great purpose of our people. It will enable you to realize later in life just what sacrifice means and just what degree of sacrifice our army is called upon to make and which they have made and are making bravely and courageously.”
He promised his young son a trip to France to see the battlefields and in words meant for his son only, General Pershing sums up the larger purpose, simple, poignant and meant to be private, a father trying to teach his son what we hold dear. He kept his promise to his son and here are photos of young Warren Pershing with his father in France.
We should remember all those, who sacrificed so much for our liberty, not only on Memorial Day, but every day:
“We here must speak of things
That give us pause –
Our hesitation comes because some words
When spoken here
Tremble in the air
And voice immortal thoughts.
We here must speak of heroes,
Of loyalty, and love,
Of valor, fear controlled –
And, yes, of death –
That fearful price that those who’re named here paid.”
– Minta Marie Morze