Remembering the Victors of War and Peace
Memorial Day 2008
By LtCol Kurt Wheeler, USMCR
Memorial Day. We are here today to remember. To give thanks. To pay tribute. We do this because it is the right thing to do. Our fallen heroes are worthy of our time, our attention, our honor. We also do this to support and comfort the families and friends of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. We hope to remind them that their loss has paid the mortgage on freedoms we all cherish. Finally, we do this to demonstrate our values as a people; that courage is honorable, that service is essential, that sacrifice will be sanctified. In doing so, we shape the next generation of young Americans.
These are all worthy reasons for us to gather here today. As a history teacher, I would like to offer one additional benefit that this time of remembrance offers us: Examining our past and placing it in context helps us to better understand our present and more successfully guide our future. In that spirit, there are two themes I would ask us to reflect upon today. The first is that the meaning of a given sacrifice is not always clear in the near term. The second is that winning a peace can be as important as winning a war.
Sometimes the meaning of a war and the value of what has been purchased with the blood of its heroes is crystal clear. This is truly a blessing when it occurs. When our gallant veterans of World War II captured Omaha Beach from its Nazi defenders, turned the tide at Bastogne or raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi, there was not a moment of doubt as to the greatness of their actions or the value of their sacrifices. There was a sense of clarity and certainty that transcended even the horror of war. For my own generation, as we drove the last Iraqi invader from the tiny nation of Kuwait, there was nearly universal rejoicing. Very little perspective was needed to understand that a great good had been achieved. The returning veterans of 1991 benefited from this clarity and basked in the praise and good will of a proud nation.
There are times in our history, however, when understanding the importance and the enduring value of our veterans’ sacrifices requires greater perspective and a deeper understanding of history. No one with even the slightest understanding of the Korean War questions the courage and the fortitude of those who fought at Chosin or captured and recaptured the numbered hills of the central peninsula. Yet in 1953, not all could grasp what had been purchased with the 34,000 precious lives lost in the conflict. The DMZ that marked the endgame of the war lay just miles from the original line of the 38th parallel. The meaning of their sacrifice has become clearer and clearer with each passing year. Those rescued by our Korean veterans, the South Korean people, live today in a state of freedom, in a flourishing democracy with one of the most vibrant economies in the world. Those behind the totalitarian curtain that was drawn across the peninsula by force of Chinese arms still suffer 55 years later from poverty and despotism. What if the South Koreans had not been defended? How would the history of the 20th century been altered if tyranny had been allowed to march unimpeded through South Korea and beyond?
The same was true in Vietnam. Examples from its battles fill our history books and tactical manuals as exemplars of heroism and soldierly virtue. There is not a cadet today who cannot describe the valor exhibited on Hill 881 outside Khe Sanh, or in the ruins of Hue City or along the length of the Ia Drang Valley. Yet as our forces withdrew in 1973, and even more as that last helicopter left the Saigon Embassy in 1975, soldiers and citizens alike wondered what had been purchased at the price of 58,000 American lives. History has allowed us a better perspective on their sacrifices. As the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 and democracy spread across the globe during the 1990’s, it was not the result of a single, pivotal battle, but rather the cumulative efforts of two generations of Americans who had resisted the spread of communism. The heroic struggles of so many patriots for so long had raised the ante to the point that communism suffered a systemic collapse. The credit for this historic victory against Soviet-led totalitarianism goes to all those Cold Warriors who suffered and sacrificed in far-off struggles like Vietnam. Our honored dead from Vietnam put the words of President John F. Kennedy into human form, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Without the sacrifices of our veterans, those would just be words, not prophesy.
The lessons of the Cold War may be instructive today as we are once again locked in a long and often divisive struggle against a global ideology that opposes all we hold dear. As combat in Afghanistan nears its seventh year and the war in Iraq has now passed its fifth, there are those who question the necessity of victory in these conflicts. Perhaps the question to ask is not, “can we afford to wage these struggles?”, but rather in the larger sense, “can we afford not to confront intolerance and oppression?” As someone who has gazed first-hand on the evils perpetrated by Al Qaeda in Iraq, I assure you, the threat of Islamic fascism is not a challenge that can go unanswered. Just as the end result of many of our Cold War conflicts was unclear decades ago as history was unfolding, the long term contributions of our current veterans may not come clearly into focus for years to come. My mission last year was to travel across the battlefields of Western Iraq, documenting the actions of the Marines and soldiers serving there. I am proud to report that their courage, their valor and their humanity live up to the high standards set by our past generations of heroes.
Their selfless dedication to sowing the seeds of long-term victory bring me to our closing thought for today; that winning the peace is as important as winning the war. The pages of history make clear this truism. The great victory that was enabled by the sacrifices of Americans in the Argonne Forrest and Belleau Wood in 1918 was squandered when our nation and its European allies failed to build a foundation for lasting peace. Only two decades later, 40 million people around the world would pay the price for that failure to “win the peace.” At the end of the century, a magnificent military victory against the invading army of Saddam Hussein in 1991 was rendered incomplete when we failed to establish a peace that was worthy of our effort in combat. A decade of defiance, conflict and genocide was the price paid for our inattention.
The aftermath of World War II and Korea offering striking examples to the contrary. Our military greatness was matched by our diplomacy, vision and perseverance. The great victory in Europe was matched by the benevolence of the Marshall Plan and a long-term commitment to stability and peace in Germany. Equal investments were made in the long-term success of Japan and South Korea. Victory in peace has been measured for decades by the security and prosperity of these nations.
How will history view our current endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan? The political components which will resolve that question will be decided by the American government as guided by the American people. I pray that they choose wisely and embrace history’s lessons. I cannot predict what our government will do, but I can assure you that our noble young Marines and soldiers are doing their part to win the peace even as they struggle to win the war. Day after day, I was amazed by the courage, the wisdom and the decency displayed by our young warriors. They are laying a foundation for lasting peace by demonstrating our nation’s virtues and winning the faith of the Iraqi and Afghan people one family and one neighborhood at a time.
Thank you all for being here today. May we all pause from our lives, so rich with blessings, to remember those who have gone before us. May we honor their sacrifices and give thanks for the freedoms they have purchased for us with their blood. May we also remember those still in harm’s way and ask God’s blessing on them and their families. Today we remember, we give thanks, we pay tribute… to those who have fought America’s fights, secured our victories (both short term and long term) and helped to win the peace that we all cherish and desire. Thanks again to each of you for being here. God Bless America.