Freedom isn’t free. That’s the message playing out on my social media stream with heartfelt devotion this Memorial Day weekend in pictures of Arlington National Cemetery or flag draped coffins, reminding us, maybe for just a few days, that some have made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom. And as a Veteran, I am deeply appreciative of the honor that my friends and family show my fallen comrades. They’re right. Freedom isn’t free. We pay for our freedom. We pay for it with our industry and our innovation. We pay for it with our compassion and our willingness to compromise in the name of the greater good. We pay for it with our commitment to pay attention to things that matter in service to exercising our democratic duties as Americans. Sometimes, when we must, we pay for it with the lives of our young men and women. And so this weekend we honor them.
I would like to take our collective conscience a little further though, past honor and respect. Past gratitude, past reverence. This weekend I would like ask people to move past all of it and spend some time in conscious thought about what the cost of war is; the honest cost of war. In our history, we have lost 1.2 million men and women to combat deaths. Of these dead, the logical majority were young people at the dawn of their membership in the brotherhood of mankind. The average age of the 58,220 Americans killed in Vietnam was 23.
What masterpieces of art, what forces of industry, what transcendent leaders and humanitarians were snuffed out well before their prime? What husbands and fathers, mothers and sons paid the ultimate bill for goods they never received? As has been the case through the ages, the youth pay dearly for the misgivings of our elders and their inability to find solutions without violent ends. In With the Old Breed, the most honest war book I’ve ever read, written by a true American hero who served in the hell of Okinawa and Peleliu, Eugene B. Sledge gave voice to our dead.
“I am the harvest of man’s stupidity. I am the fruit of the holocaust. I prayed like you to survive, but look at me now. It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle, and will carry the memories all your life. People back home will wonder why you can’t forget.”
Freedom isn’t free. And so neither is war. Though we stand ready to fight to defend our freedom and our way of life, it’s not the only thing we fight for. We’ve fought for our security. We’ve fought for politics. We’ve fought for our economy. We’ve fought and sacrificed our countrymen for many things, not just freedom. In one of his earliest speeches of record, a 28-year old Abraham Lincoln captured a truth that 177 years later, when we’re honest with ourselves, we know to be true today.
At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
There’s still the same amount of ocean between us and anyone as when young Abe made his point. It has been a long time since American men and women have died to protect our freedom alone.
As for my generation of fighting men and women, we have a similar, yet different price to pay. As it was for many of my graduating class from Annapolis, I was on my first deployment when this war started 14 years ago. Since then, over 8,000 men and women have lost their lives. And as callous as it sounds, that’s not a lot of death for 14 years of war. The American warrior is hard to kill these days. There’s another cost that we continue to pay out in much more subtle figures though.
After multiple deployments in the longest war in the history of our country, many continue to suffer the effects of long-term exposure to stress and trauma. Like a car stuck in drive, often the only peace for them comes when the tank is empty or they crash like my classmate Ben. Ben was a Marine Corps officer who served multiple deployments in Iraq. He took his own life this last March after suffering for over a decade with PTSD and depression. I didn’t know Ben well. I didn’t have to in order to know that he was the energy and light in every room he was in. Now that light is gone forever and the world is worse off for it.
For many of us, the environment we lived in put us in a state where we couldn’t stop chasing it. Every year at this time I am reminded of my friend and classmate Jeremy. Jeremy was a Force Recon Marine Corp Major with multiple hard deployments under his belt during the worst of the fighting Iraq and Afghanistan. Jeremy was a hell of a man. He was better than everyone at everything he ever did. If you knew him, you know what I mean. He died in a BASE jumping accident while on leave from the war. Jeremy was my friend and I miss him. He would have made a strong husband to a good woman or a mentoring father to a son or daughter. He’s gone now. These are the more subtle costs of our modern war. Less acute but somehow, more painful and cruel.
I am not a pacifist. I don’t believe that, as a nation, the activities of our military in the near past have been entirely in vain. I was a voluntary part of much of it. There are pictures of my teammates and medals on the wall of my den in the open for my kids to see and be proud of. I don’t wish that my country would lay down her arms and surrender the will to wage war in the name of our freedom, our interests or even our principles. I’m asking for something else. What I ask of my American brothers and sisters is that you take the time this weekend to consider something very important.
Ask yourself, when you formed your opinion about when and how our country should engage in armed conflict with foreign countries, did you put enough thought into it to bet someone else’s life on it? Have you truly taken the time to consider the honest cost of war? If you haven’t, try to spend a little time over the next few days to think about it. There are a few people I won’t be able to stop thinking about this weekend that you owe it to.