Courage Is Never Wasted

Soldiers salute the playing of “Taps” at a military funeral during the “Flags In” ceremony at Arlington, 2013. (Reuters)
The bravery of soldiers sustains the whole nation.

Few holidays illustrate America’s civilian/military divide quite like Memorial Day. It’s a cliché to note, but true nevertheless — that for millions of Americans, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer and the opening of swimming pools more than it does the immense loss of ultimate sacrifice. For a smaller population, however, Memorial Day provides the kind of stop-you-in-your-tracks moments that remind you of days of grief and pain.

I remember years ago watching a Memorial Day weekend race on NASCAR. During the pre-race festivities, a man played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes to honor those who paid the ultimate price. I had to leave the room. The memories — of hearing that same song played the same for men whom I knew — were simply too fresh.

For families of the fallen and for modern veterans, there is a reality that often deepens our grief. Our wars since World War II have often been inconclusive, at best. Battlefield victories have been squandered, a nation that we defended — South Vietnam — is now extinct, and in Iraq thousands of men are right back where Americans were ten years ago, fighting the same enemy.

Against that backdrop, I’ve heard people say that American sacrifices have been in vain, even that lives were “wasted.” I understand. I truly do. When I watched ISIS surge across the Syrian border, retaking towns and cities that Americans fought for at great cost, it was difficult to describe the sense of frustration. I can only imagine how the generation before me felt when they saw the last helicopter take off from the roof in Saigon.

But I also know that courage is never truly wasted. It returns incalculable value to brothers-in-arms, to the military, and to the nation. We’ve seen throughout history that cowardice is contagious — but so are honor and courage, even (and sometimes especially) honor and courage displayed in a “losing” cause.

#share#Some of the greatest moments in American military history have occurred when members of the most powerful military in the world found themselves in hopeless circumstances, surrounded and cut off. They’ve occurred in the jungles of Vietnam and in the dusty streets of Diyala. We rightly lionize that valor, and it inspires present and future generations to live up to that legacy.

As I’ve written before, throughout history men and women have gone into battle knowing — in the immortal words of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” — that “someone had blunder’d.” Yet that bond of shared sacrifice, of the willingness to die for your brother, sustains our nation and our culture.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be accountability for errors — that politicians and generals shouldn’t pay a high price for their failures — but rather to note that every life given honorable in service to our nation leaves behind an enduring and powerful legacy.

They were our best, they gave their all, and their sacrifice sustains our nation far beyond its battlefields.

Sometimes it seems as if we live in the age of blunders. The quality of our political leaders diminishes, and their decisions are striking in their short-sightedness and naked pandering. But we also still live in an age of courage — an age of courage that persisted throughout our nation’s existence. Think about this remarkable fact: In spite of almost 15 years of continual combat since 9/11, most of it far from the headlines and waged in circumstances that frustrate even our most idealistic soldiers, our nation has sustained an all-volunteer military — with hundreds of thousands signing up not just to fight, but to fight again and again.

This Memorial Day I’ll remember the men whom I knew — men who died fighting in a war that is the subject of renewed, ferocious debate and in a country that is the focus of renewed, ferocious combat overseas — and I’ll draw strength from the courage. They were our best, they gave their all, and their sacrifice sustains our nation far beyond its battlefields. They have made our nation. They make it still.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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