This past Friday evening my family and I watched "Saving Private Ryan," Spielberg's classic WWII film about a squad of soldiers, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), tasked to locate and bring back a young Army private whose three brothers had been killed in separate actions within days of each other. I remember seeing it when originally released (1998) in the company of a bunch of fellow Marine Corps majors. We were all struck by the realism of the combat depicted, the lessons of courage and leadership under extreme conditions, and the themes of sacrifice, morality, compassion, and meaning-found-in-loss. It's an intense movie but a very powerful one in all the right ways. My wife and I discussed whether it would be appropriate as a 'family film' and concluded that it was given our current context: our kids are now older and have been exposed to a range of war-related issues via the news (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, their school-related studies of the 9/11 attacks, the recent bombings in Boston, the two-year war in Syria, and the most recent horrible slaying in London, among others), we were at the start of the Memorial Day weekend, and most obviously they had been routinely exposed to military things given my career as a Marine and continued work in military and national security-related affairs since my retirement from active duty. It was as intense as I'd remembered and I believe it gave the kids something on which to reflect the next time they see a glamorized depiction of war or any violence for that matter. Further, it gave us a great reference point as we discussed this Memorial Day and similar occasions to come on down the line.
Last evening I received by email a link to a Memorial Day speech given by Marine Corps General John Kelly in San Antonio this past Thursday. His speech is among the best I've heard or read and it is all the more poignant given the personal loss he has suffered not only as a leader of Marines over several combat tours but, more importantly, as a father who lost one of his own sons in combat action in Afghanistan just a couple of years ago. Gen Kelly is the highest ranking US officer to have lost a family member in our battles since Sept 11, 2001. Greg Jaffe, of the Washington Post, painted a deeply moving portrait of the man, his son, and the intimate context of those serving our country, in a beautiful story published just five months after the General's heartbreaking loss. If you can carve out any time at all in the next few days, I urge you to take a moment to read both items, probably starting with Jaffe's article and then moving to Kelly's speech.
In each account--Gen Kelly's own words and Jaffe's reporting--we gain a glimpse into the nature of service to one's country and the bond that is established among those who share in such service, especially in combat when the stakes and the potential (probable?) cost cannot be higher. Jaffe's perspective is that of an observer and a reporter, attempting to capture the experiences and emotions of those effected by the loss of a loved one on a foreign battlefield. Kelly's is that of someone on the inside, whose experiences derive from the mortal dangers of combat shared with fellow Marines, to the solemn duty of delivering to families the most painful news they can possibly receive, and finally to that of recipient of the same devastating message. In his remarks, the General takes time to highlight how things have changed over the past half-century, from a time when these experiences were shared amongst a much larger portion of our society and even across overlapping generations to our current time when barely one out of a hundred have any connection at all to such service and its related cost.
The point of his remarks, of course, is to encourage those who are connected in such a way to work to ensure that the importance of such service isn't forgotten and that the rest of society is reminded of the benefits they accrue from the sacrifice of others; that our country is as blessed as it is because of the decision made by some to undertake such noble work and to stick with it when the going gets as rough as one can imagine.
In additional, and perhaps most importantly, he addressed the inevitable question raised by families seeking meaning in their loss: was it worth the life of their son or daughter? Here is some of what the General had to say:
"Aside from everything else their families have endured over the loss of their loved one they can be proud of the decision to serve…of the commitment to defend their nation when they did not have to. Proud of their loved one who stepped forward when the vast majority never even consider it. Proud that by this one very personal decision—to serve a cause higher than themselves regardless of the outcome to them personally—their fallen loved one gave answer to two questions that have over the centuries defined the dedication of free and righteous men and women in the fight against wickedness: “If not me, who? If not now, when”?
"...They [the young man or woman who has chosen to serve] also learned early as anyone who has truly experienced combat does, however, that fear is always with you... The fear is at times an all-consuming constant but that is what courage is, isn’t it, pushing through the terror and completing the mission assigned regardless of how dangerous. They learn early, these kids we send out to fight the nation’s battles, that fear is an instinct but courage is a decision and one they make day-after-day throughout their tours...
"...And their families should know and hopefully take comfort in the fact that when they fell they were not alone. When they went, they were surrounded by the finest men and women on this earth—their buddies—who desperately tried to save their lives. They held their hands, and tried to comfort them, prayed with them, listened to all the little stories about their families and their homes…until they were gone. They were not alone and when the spirit left them and God in his infinite wisdom took them to his bosom, their military family lovingly sent them home. In this their last journey, they were never alone. At every stop along the way they were treated with the greatest reverence and deepest respect due a fallen hero until members of the service they proudly joined brought them to you
"...in my dozens of conversations with families of the fallen at Dover, or at gravesides at Arlington, or at gathering’s like this, I have been similarly asked if it was worth the life of someone they brought into the world, raised and nurtured so lovingly, and so much looked forward to seeing grow and find wonderful husbands and wives, and give them grandchildren to spoil... [I] had no right to reply because as hard as I tried to understand what the immensity of their loss might be, and the depth of the sorrow in their heart, I knew it was impossible. My sense then was it is inconceivable for anyone to understand that has not had his own heart pierced with such sadness. I learned I was right."
General Kelly went on to briefly share his own loss, the details of which Jaffe concisely conveys with such sensitivity. Kelly asked himself the same question that others had posed to him. Was it worth it? This is what he concluded...
"The only thing that matters is what he [Second Lieutenant Robert M. Kelly, USMC] thought. That he had decided it was more important to be where he was that morning in the Sangin River Valley, Afghanistan, to be doing what he was doing with the Marines and Navy Doc he loved so much and led so well in what was at that time the most dangerous place on earth. In his mind—and in his heart—he had decided somewhere between the day he was born at 2130, 5 September 1985 and 0719, 9 November 2010, that it was worth it to him to risk everything—even his life—in the service of his country. So in spite of the terrible emptiness that is in a corner of my heart and I now know will be there until I see him again, and the corners of the hearts of everyone who ever knew him, we are proud…so very proud. Was it worth his life? It’s not for me to say. He answered the question for me."
As General Kelly conveys, the 'worth' of service to, and sacrifice for, country can only be determined by the person who answers that calling. The best we can do to extend that meaning, to give it enduring value, is to honor such service and the sacrifice it demands by doing our part as family, friends, neighbors, and responsible, involved citizens of this great country.
At the end of Spielberg's film, Captain Miller pulls Private Ryan close and tells him to 'earn' the sacrifice made by so many who paid the ultimate price to secure his safety...to make their effort mean something beyond the battlefield. As the movie comes to a close and the scene shifts to the beautiful American cemetery overlooking the Normandy coastline, a now-aged Ryan, with tear-rimmed eyes, stands before the headstone of Captain Miller, saying to him, "My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasn't sure how I'd feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I've earned what all of you have done for me." Then turning to his wife he asks of her, "Tell me I have led a good life...Tell me I'm a good man."
In many ways, General Kelly's remarks, and perhaps what Spielberg was trying to convey, remind me of President Lincoln's thoughts on the occasion of his speaking at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg and I think that's where I'd like to conclude this post. President Lincoln spoke for only a few minutes, delivering just ten sentences, but what he said epitomizes the essence of Memorial Day. Here are his final few lines:
"[In] a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."