My friends and I visited Arlington National Cemetery on an extremely cold morning. The air was positively frigid as we crossed the Potomac and into the large federal property once owned by Robert E. Lee. We wandered along narrow paths to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I let my friends pass ahead of me, and under gentle boughs of trees in a field of white markers, I began to weep. As I cried before the ranks of honored dead, I promised that I would devote my studies to the great question: Why do soldiers have to die? Yet after all these years, I cannot answer.
This weekend, our leaders will offer speeches with words like “sacrifice” and “duty” and “service”. I have never given such service to my country, but I imagine these trademark speeches have a different effect for those in uniform. Their experiences are unique compared to those of the common man.
They have seen great outbursts of violence in shockingly brief spurts of time. They have struggled to survive in inhospitable lands. They have huddled in darkness or stood watch in total silence. They have marched for leagues with heavy burdens. They have endured the distances that must be crossed to reach their families. They have labored without rest, food, dignity, or comfort. And in battles of every kind, many have fallen without a word.
We commit our sons and daughters to theaters of war. And they go willingly. Some return wounded, inward or outward, and some never return at all. They accept these pains as well. There is no amount of logic or rhetoric to explain this. I cannot find the Why? at all! I have failed to learn why peace is not consistently adopted in lieu of strife. We build a house around this paradox with white stone markers.
I sobbed like a fool at Arlington on that frigid day. Then I came to see how my grief was a show of respect. I value my historical studies to preserve the memory of those buried or left behind. Our veterans also remind us of the tranquility sought by Lincoln in the wake of Gettysburg: if we must endure a time of war, let that pass into history behind a longer and grander era of peace!
“. . . from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
– Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address