The Common Defense


The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution lists six reasons a strong central government is needed.  The fourth of these reasons is to provide for the common defense.  Soldiers, sailors, and Marines have been providing for the common defense since twelve years before the Preamble was written.  In the last century they were joined by airmen.  Many of them have died providing for the common defense.

Memorial Day is one of my favorite holidays.  I think it is important to honor our war dead.  Not for their sake, but for ours, and more importantly for those currently in the military or who one day may be in the military.  It is important for warriors heading into battle that if they are killed, their sacrifice will be remembered.

Far be it for me to glorify war.  I have never been in combat myself, but I have served with those who have.  Most of the time, they were either silent about their experience, or they spoke with great bravado.  But a few of my fellow infantrymen who were combat veterans, once they got to trust me would speak the truth about their experiences, and it was chilling.

Robert E. Lee, who knew as much about war as anyone, stood on Maryes’ Hill in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and watch Union forces massacred as they advanced up the steep slope toward his guns and soldiers behind the stone wall at the base of the hill.  As he surveyed the carnage his army caused the enemy, he knew he was going to win the day.  But rather than rejoicing, he turned somberly toward his aide and said, “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”

But sometimes war is necessary.  Too often it is not, but because of greed, ambition, and propaganda, we fight them anyway.

WWII has been called “The Good War” is there is such a thing.  The horrible atrocities inflicted by the Nazis and the Japanese upon the people they conquered, certainly justify our response as far as I am concerned.

In the summer of 1944, the Allies, mostly Americans and British, landed at Normandy and pushed eastward, driving the Germans back across France, Belgium, and the Low Countries.

One evening an American Lieutenant in France was looking for a place to bivouac his platoon for the night.  He found a farm with a barn and some other out buildings.  He and his interpreter approached the house and knocked on the door.  And old French farmer opened the door a crack and looked at the thirty soldiers spread out in his yard. 

France had been occupied by the Nazis for over four years, and the farmer was used to having soldiers tramping all over his place, demanding this and taking that.  The American lieutenant asked if they could camp in his yard and use his barn for the night.  The farmer shrugged his shoulders and nodded his assent.  The lieutenant said, “merci” and turned to deploy his men.  The farmer then asked, “What would you have done if I would have said ‘no.”  The lieutenant smiled, “We would have found someplace else.”  The farmer began to cry.  The American he realized were not there to conquer and to pillage, but to rescue.  As it should be.

I enjoy a good war movie.  I liked Saving Private Ryan.  It was realistic except for one thing.  The actors playing the soldiers were too old.  Many of them were in their thirties.  Tom Hanks is my age which means he was in his forties.  Soldiers who go off to fight and die for the common defense are usually in their late teens or early twenties.  I was discharged after three years in the army two months after I turned twenty-one. 

In Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation, he tells the story of a man in his town during the late 1950s.  He was complaining to Brokaw’s mother about the vandalism some of the teen agers had done on Halloween night.

Brokaw’s mother said, “Quit your complaining.  What were you doing when you were seventeen?”

The man thought for a moment and said, “Invading Guadalcanal.”

Providing for the common defense is necessary and it is hard.  In Nehemiah 4:13-23, we get this incredible and surrealistic image.  The Jews who had come to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall also had to defend themselves from their hostile neighbors.  In none hand each man carried building materials and in the other a sword or a spear.

That wall had to rebuilt.  That was Nehemiah’s cause and he made it the Jewish cause.  Doing so was surely a difficult and dangerous thing.  Imagine building a wall, which is hard enough.  But then add in the constant threat of attack.

Tom Brokaw tells another story about a man who fought with the 101st Airborne at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.  He was caught away from his foxhole during a particularly horrific artillery barrage.  As the 88mm and 105mm shells rained down around him, he managed to find a smidgen of cover in a frozen rut in the road.  He flattened himself out as low as he could and covered his head with his arms.  The barrage lasted close to an hour.  He survived.

Years later when in the course of his life, things got difficult for him and he was tempted to complain, he would recall that day in Belgium and say to himself, “December 27, 1944 – what I am going through now is nothing.”

Often times on Memorial Day we veterans are asked to stand to be honored.  But we veterans have our day, November 11, Veterans Day.  I am a bit of a purist when it comes to these things.  Memorial Day is for those who lost their lives for the common defense, and for them alone.