From John Hennessy. [This is derived from the speech given in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery yesterday, Memorial Day, 2015.]
We take for granted that men and women are willing to die for their country when called upon to do so. We presume their trust in what Democracy and freedom are and what they mean to the world are inspiration enough. We presume their determination to protect things precious to all of us—family, our communities, our most cherished principles and traditions—will ensure our own safety, our own prosperity.
But think for a moment of this transaction from the other side: what underlies their willingness to give their lives for us, if need be?
Faith is the foundation of the military experience. I don’t mean faith in God or a religion—though that’s certainly important to many. I mean the faith that a soldier must have in what we ask of him or her. When we ask a soldier to fight for this nation, he or she serves because he has faith the cause is worthy of the effort.
When a lieutenant asks a private to charge across the plain at Fredericksburg in 1862 or to kick in a door in Ramadi in 2004, the private does so in part because he has faith—faith that what he’s being asked to do will somehow contribute to a larger end. That faith is what renders, by virtue of a word or a wave of an army or a blast on a bugle, a non-descript rise of ground or a distant fenceline or the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania worth dying for, if need be.
Soldiers rarely have the perspective to see how what they are doing fits into the larger effort, but they must have faith that it does.
That fiber of faith runs from the lowest private to the highest general and beyond.
When that faith is threatened or broken, armies cease to function and causes, no matter how noble, can fail.
I mention this particularly today, here, because the soldier’s faith extends not just to his fellow soldiers, or commanding officers, or generals-in-chief. That fiber of faith extends to the nation beyond, to all of us. When we ask young men and women to die for our nation if need be, they agree because they have faith in us.
They have faith that what we are asking of them is reasonable, just, achievable, and necessary to the health of our nation.
They have faith that we will value and appreciate their efforts and their sacrifices.
They have faith that should they fall, we will care for those left behind–for the grief of families is also part of the national sacrifice of war.
And there’s something else. It applies as much to the men who repose in this cemetery—men who died for their nation more than 150 years ago—as it does to more than 35 men and women from this region who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan:
They had faith that should they die, we of their generation and all who followed would not forget what they had done.
We are part of that vital fiber of faith that sustains our nation and inspires the men and women who serve it. The sacrifice of the more than 15,000 men who lie in this cemetery is a sublime thing to be sure—and history tells us without question that their sacrifice propelled our nation down an essential path of improvement.
But know this too: your presence in this cemetery today, too, is essential to the health of our nation. Indeed, your presence here today justifies their faith in the America they left behind.