By Rev. John Prather,
Grace United Methodist Church
Are We Still Worth Their Sacrifice?
I am honored to be here and I thank you in advance for your attention and patience on this hot Memorial Day. Let me begin this speech with a disclaimer. The speech you are about to hear may not reflect the views of Grace United Methodist Church, or of the world wide United Methodist Church, or of my Bishop. Indeed I hope my Bishop never reads it. I am not here as a pastor, or a Methodist, but as a veteran, a citizen and a neighbor and I speak only for myself. And yet I believe I have the right to speak because I have served my country, and I have always sought to be a good citizen and a good neighbor. And as I have been a keen observer of recent history I also believe I may have something worthwhile to say.
I turned down the opportunity to speak to you the first time it was offered because I have been struggling with just what it means to be a patriot in today’s America and I knew that I would not be able to speak without that struggle coming through in my speech. Even as I prepared this speech there were times that I would pause and ask myself if this is really something I wanted to do. I was tempted to spruce up some patriotic platitudes, add a couple of tear jerking stories, throw in a little humor, and send you all home to your beer and barbeque. But I fear for the nation that I love, and I have been silent too long, and there just may be a chance that some of you will see it the way I see it. So let’s saddle up and lock and load.
We have gathered to memorialize the sacrifice of those patriots who gave their lives that this nation might live free. From the first fallen minuet man, to the latest roadside bomb casualty, over 1.3 million Americans have given what President Lincoln called, ”their last full measure of devotion” to this precious experiment in liberty that we are privileged to call home. And again, I echo Lincoln when I declare that it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, Lincoln was also quick to remind those at Gettysburg that his words and their presence added very little to the occasion, because the brave men, living and dead, who had struggled in that great battle, had already hollowed and consecrated the ground far beyond his poor power to add or detract. And as we gather here to honor all who gave their last full measure of devotion we, too, must remember that it is their sacrifice that hallows this day and that it is for us, the living, to take from our honored dead increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion. And that we are here to highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. Now, my powers are considerably poorer than those of the great Abraham Lincoln but, with fear and trembling, I find myself impelled to offer a simple question that might help us measure our devotion to the cause for which they gave their all. And this simple question is, “Are we still worth their sacrifice?”
I beg you to indulge me and allow me to use the sixty plus years of my life to examine the last half century of American history and, perhaps, shed some light on how we might begin to answer that question. Even if I live to be a hundred I will never forget those little yellow footprints. Five rows of twenty or so yellow footprints outside the Marine Corp Recruit Depot in San Diego California. It was June 12, 1967 when I sauntered off the bus as a 17 year old man/child with a D. A. haircut, wearing Levis and a pack of camels rolled up into the sleeve of my tee shirt. I also had what my father rightly called an attitude, but an attitude adjustment was on the way because even as my feet hit those little yellow footprints my whole world changed as they began to mold me and my fellow recruits into Marines. They screamed in our faces as we scurried about trying to obey orders we could not quite understand and I was called a maggot 20 times in the first ten minutes. And maggot was modified by a certain Anglo-Saxon vulgarism without which conversation in the Marine Corps would be impossible. Like every new recruit I was hurried from one line to the next by contorted faces, loud voices, and, even, the toe of a boot. All of this took the cocky saunter out of my walk faster than the barber got my ducks A** haircut. In another ten minutes we were showered, shaved, dressed in yellow sweatshirts and baggy trousers, and standing at attention on those little yellow footprints.
In just one frenetic hour we had been transformed from proud young lions to newly shorn lambs. Everything that once established our identities: our clothes, our mementos, all boxed up and sent back to our homes. We were to be given a new identity. We were to learn to put the interests of country and Corps above our own. And we were to be shaped into the kind of men who could discipline ourselves and uphold the traditions of the Marine Corps. And the drill instructors, God bless them, had the unenviable task of making men and Marines out of a sorry lot of boys, and they were masters at their craft. They used fear, fatigue and humiliation to break us down: and Marine Corps History and tradition to build us back up.
All of you Vets have a sense of what life was like in Marine Corp boot camp. We were never allowed to have a casual conversation, and there were no leisurely moments. We were always marching, running or standing at attention. We ate at attention; our rare cigarettes were smoked at attention, for all I know I slept at attention. We were never alone and there was always someone in our faces. It was in boot camp that I first learned about inclusive language. When we were good we were girls, when we were very good we were ladies, but, when we incurred their displeasure we were pukes and maggots and even lower than civilians and they put us in the sand pit. There we did squat thrusts and push-ups until our backs ached and our arms trembled, and when we could take no more the D.I. would yell,
“On your backs and make it rain” and we would throw handfuls of sand into the air and as it fell over our sweaty faces we would pray that this was the end of this day’s torture. Then it was off to the showers, our racks, and a hopeful 8 hours of blissful unconsciousness. But in a shower room with only 20 shower heads and 60 recruits and where no one was allowed to speak, someone would linger under a shower head just a little too long, and someone else would complain, and a lurking D.I would hear: and all 60 of us would be trying to get into push up position in 6 inches of scummy water in a room where there was really standing room only. Or perhaps you would drop a thumb while saluting, or jerk the trigger instead of squeezing: and the D.I. would bite the offending member leaving it bruised and bleeding. Once a man bites you if he later threatens to kick an important part of your anatomy up between your shoulder blades, no matter how unlikely it seems, you tend to take him at his word.
And I could go on about the intense physical training, the harassment, the mental and physical abuse heaped upon every one of us to prepare us to be combat ready Marines. And not everyone made it. We started with 75 but we graduated only 53.
But when we graduated we had been molded, like clay, into our new identity as U.S Marines. How well I remember graduation day. It was our first time in full uniform and as we stood in formation on the parade ground the D.I barked “Ladies”, and then he seemed to reconsider and said, “No, I can never call you ladies again, because you are U. S. Marines now”. And the only sound on that parade ground was the sound of buttons popping off swelling chests.
My journey begun on those yellow footprints would then take me Infantry Training Regiment and Basic Infantry Training School and then to the Republic of Vietnam where I served with the 26th Marines as an 0311, an infantry rifleman. Eventually I was wounded at Khe Sahn, returned home for reconstructive surgery and then medically retired. Like most of you who served I had only done what I believed my God, my family, my country and the Marine Corp had every right to expect of me. I never considered myself a hero and I never wanted any special thanks. And it’s a damn good thing that I didn’t because the America that failed to welcome me home was becoming a very different place than the America that had formed me.
While I had been following the path of those little yellow footprints many Americans seemed to believe that they had found a yellow brick road to the city of Oz. A city where peace could be secured by protesting war and mocking the military; where Inequality could be abolished by simply pretending that there were no differences, where political correctness trumped free speech, where people felt entitled to what was once understood to come only with hard work, and where once we had believed that the poor sometimes needed a hand up, now we believed that they must have permanent handouts. The nation that had once asked for God’s blessings now believed that God had no business in the public square. And where once we had spoken of our responsibilities to our faith, our families, and our country; now we talked incessantly of rights and their violation. And this new America made it obvious that fathers were no longer needed to raise children, that love was free and that no one had the right to object to who sleeps with whom; and babies had become “fetuses” or “products of conception” and they were allowed to be born only if it was convenient.
The Age of Aquarius had dawned and America was well on the way down the yellow brick road. I enrolled in Southern Illinois University and the war protestors shut it down for the first time in its history. I left to work, raise my family and try to ignore the insanity I saw all around me. Not everyone bought into this insanity; many, perhaps even most, Americans were puzzled and upset about the direction of our country. But the powerful and influential in the media, the judiciary, the church, and the political and educational establishments all seemed intent on eradicating everything that I loved about my country, and putting something entirely foreign in its place.
The protestors got their way and we abandoned South Vietnam and even now few people know that many more lives were lost in the first two years of the peace that the protestors won, than in the entire course of the war.
I remember the seventies as a blur of discontent and indecision as America wallowed in guilt and self-pity. In the eighties we seemed to regain our footing as we defeated Communism and for a little while it did indeed seem like morning in America again. But then came the nineties and times were good but it became increasingly obvious that we were not. Our culture became even coarser, our politics more divisive and corrupt, and somewhere along the way we gave up on our dream of one American Republic, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; and sold our birthright of one America for all, for the pottage of multi culturalism and the celebration of diversity. And so the America to which I returned was no longer a nation with a distinct American culture, but was becoming a nation of many cultures all competing with one another for attention and special consideration. And again I don’t believe that the average American embraced this new vision of America -this was not our vision-but the vision of the elites in our culture who form our opinions and tell us what we ought to think and what we ought to be.
And then came the first decade of a brand new millennium.
But even a terror attack at its beginning and a financial collapse toward its end, could not impede our merry journey down that yellow brick road. The various isms spawned out of the universities and disseminated and reinforced by politicians, media, and public education now control our thoughts and are so entrenched that it is politically incorrect to even question them.
Their academic names are relativism, radical egalitarianism, feminism, secularism, sexual liberationism, redistributionism, utopianism, socialism, and other isms too numerous to mention.
The only two isms missing on the yellow brick road are realism and Americanism.
And what of the scenery along the way and what have we experienced as we traveled this yellow brick road? To be fair it has not been all bad. We finally confessed and addressed our darkest national sin, that of slavery and Jim Crow racism. And although the excesses of feminism have been terribly destructive we have opened up whole new areas of society to women, and on balance that is a good thing. But it is an ill wind that blows no one good and we have lost much more than we have gained.
1960 America was the America of the yellow footprints because those yellow footprints were only our nation’s values, principles, and attitudes of the heart writ small so we dumb Jarheads could follow them. And 2012 America is the America of the yellow brick road with all the isms providing new values, principles and attitudes of the heart to replace those of the yellow footprints. Now I do not want to overwhelm you with statistics.
The rate of crime in yellow footprints America vs. yellow brick road America, or of sexual abuse, or the rate of drug use, or the use of pornography, or dependency on the government, and a host of other markers of our national decline. In all of these things the rate is three to five times higher now, than it was then.
But let’s use the census of 1960 and the census of 2010 to evaluate these two Americas. In yellow footprints America 8 out of 10 adult Americans was married, but in yellow brick road America almost 5 out of 10 are not. And in the next census married Americans will be a minority of adults for the first time in our history. In yellow footprints America 9 out of 10 babies born in this nation were born to a married mother and father, but in yellow brick road America less than six of ten babies will be that fortunate. And we are fast approaching the time when over half the babies born in this country are born out of wedlock.
If I could drop you onto the corner of a typical American city block in yellow footprint America, five out of ten houses on that block would be occupied by a mother and father raising their biological children; and three of the other houses would have consisted of older married couples who had raised their children.
Walk along that same city block following the yellow brick road and only two of those ten houses contain what was once a typical American family. We have went from five in ten, to two in ten, in less than a generation.
Now if you are a fan of the yellow brick road and a believer in one ism or another, you might say, “So what! People are now equal and free to do as they please and live their lives as they see fit. Our society is evolving in different ways so that everyone will reach their full human potential. If we just stay on the yellow brick road we will reach our Oz of peace and perfect equality and we will do it without marriage.” But if you are following those yellow footprints you know that history demonstrates, and reason demands, that a free and civil nation can only be built and maintained by stable families, the kind we once had in yellow footprints America. And you will know that most of the alarming increase in crime, drugs, poverty, immorality, and government dependency that afflict yellow brick road America are a direct result of our inability to make marriages and raise our own children. And you will further conclude that we can no longer make marriages and raise our own children because there is nothing in the isms along the yellow brick road that encourages us to do so, and much that has been destructive of the family.
But we have done much that the isms have encouraged us to do as we have traveled this yellow brick road. We have exalted equality to the point where it trumps liberty, faith, family, and even decency and plain good sense. We have brought many to believe that the old America was such a failure that they have a sense of loathing and distaste for everything those little yellow footprints represent. And we have been endued others with such unrealistic, utopian, expectations that we came to believe that our country was really in need of fundamental change, which in truth was only the jettisoning of what few yellow footprint values still remain. We have also encouraged a sense of entitlement and government dependency to the point where almost half of all the households in America now receive some sort of government benefit. And it is obvious that we have come to believe that the Federal government can solve all of our problems and in that belief we have added 10 Trillion to our national debt in only 12 years, 5 Trillion in the last 4 years, and the problems have only grown worse. And yet as the brokest nation in the history of the world we are now borrowing 40 cents out of every dollar we spend and even those politicians who want to cut spending fear they will suffer our wrath if they do so, and they may be right.
The dead that we honor today did not give their lives so that we would be at liberty to download pornography, or have equal access to free birth control. Those definitions of freedom and equality would not even have occurred to them. No, they didn’t die for some abstract definition of liberty or equality that any of our isms would recognize; and they certainly did not die so as to enable us to continue to skip merrily down the yellow brick road.
They died so that we might continue the American experiment in liberty. They died for what makes America, America. They sacrificed their lives for what Charles Murray called “The American Project” the definition of which I take it from his book “Coming Apart, the State of White America, 1960-2010. This is a book I would recommend to everyone and it was this book that would not allow me to substitute a more pleasing speech for the one I am giving.
Murray states that the American Project “consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems.” A simple, but profound definition of what has made America, America and what created a civil culture that was unique and admired in the entire world. Do we still believe that individuals and families can be left free to live as they see fit? Do we still believe that we can come together voluntarily to solve our joint problems? This is what our honored dead believed and it is for this that they gave their last full measure of devotion. And I fear that it is this, this that made America, America that is slipping beyond our grasp. I fear that we are a culture that is coming apart.
And so what do we owe these honored dead on this Memorial Day. Do we owe them some patriotic songs, a little flag waving, a pretty speech, and maybe some beer and barbeque? No! Lincoln has already told us what we owe them when he said,
“It is for us, the living, to take from our honored dead, increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion” and, “we are to highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain.
We owe them devotion to an America where individuals and families are left free to live as they see fit. We owe them an America where we come together voluntarily to solve our joint problems. We owe them an America where if they were to suddenly reappear amongst us they would feel at home and proud of what we have done with the liberty they bought with their lives. Anything other than this means our devotion has been insufficient and they have died in vain. And if this slips away from us America will no longer be America. We may go on in some form, but we will have lost what makes America, America and we will not be a nation worth anyone’s last full measure of devotion.
And if we are to pay them what we owe them then we must abandon the yellow brick road and return to those little yellow footprints. And if we do, perhaps this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and this nation, of the people, by the people and for the people, will not perish from this earth.
And what do I owe to you? I owe you my answer to the question, “Are we still worth their sacrifice?” As I seek to answer this question in my mind’s eye I see the face of one of my best friends, Larry Russell, a fine young Marine. Larry was raised in a stable home by a loving mother and father and he was the embodiment of all the old virtues, values, principles and attitudes of the heart, of yellow footprints America. He was killed in action about two months after I was wounded. And as I juxtapose Larry’s face with yellow brick road America I struggle, but I still answer, “Yes, but just barely and maybe for not much longer.”
To close I will quote Thomas Sowell because in just a few words he eloquently sums up all that I have just presented to you. Sowell looked at our yellow brick road America and said, “We are living in a free society without the faith that built that society – and without the conviction and dedication needed to sustain it. We still have the cathedral of freedom but how long will it last without the faith.” I have spoken my piece and told the painful truth as I see it. I owed that to the dead we honor today. What do you owe them?