Today is Memorial Day here in the ole US of A. It’s the holiday that unofficially marks the beginning of summer, a day when folks crank up the barbecues or head to the beach.
It’s a big boating day.
More Than That
But the day means more than that.
Memorial Day is a day set aside to remember the men and women who died in the service of our military over the years. To quote the memo by President Clinton from 2000:
Memorial Day represents one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values. While we should honor these heroes every day for the profound contribution they have made to securing our Nation’s freedom, we should honor them especially on Memorial Day.
Freedom Isn’t Free
If we aren’t careful we can let that phrase become clichÃ© and pass over us without effect. Freedom isn’t free. It comes with a cost.
In fact, when we talk about freedom in the terms of our national discourse we are not talking about the same concept that the founders of our nation were focused on when they fought for their own national independence.
When you read through the founder’s writings you see over and over again how passionate they were about the concept of liberty. The idea of freedom is generally mentioned only as it pertains to their greater yearning for liberty.
What’s the difference you ask?
- Freedom is the power to determine action without restraint.
- Liberty means freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.
Do you see the difference?
Freedom carries with it the idea that I can do whatever I want without any outside interference set apart from any structure or restraint. Freedom tends to be more personal in nature with national connotations. Individual people can have freedom or be locked up in prison, or enslaved to others (or even to their own addictions).
Liberty is more of a national thing with personal implications. Countries can be controlled by despots or have arbitrary and unfair rules with no recourse for the population to affect change.
It is more this greater idea of liberty that the founding fathers of our nations felt so compelled toward that they saw the cost of fighting a war against the strongest national world power as a worthwhile undertaking. Without liberty there is simply less opportunity for freedom.
I suspect the blurring of distinction between these two concepts is one of the primary causes with the low regard the US military is held in some circles in our own country.
When I focus on freedom, it is all about me. There is no cost associated on my end. I get angry when anyone else tells me what I can and cannot do. I easily fall into a victim mindset when I feel my freedom is being encroached upon from the outside.
However, when I raise liberty to the forefront I have to start thinking about how my actions and ideas will affect others. There are times when I will have to set aside my own comfort and well being in the effort to preserve liberty for all. I have to have the moral character to sacrifice some on my end to keep liberty alive.
On the day the United States Constitution was signed Benjamin Franklin said that
A general government necessary for us… can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.
For a people to retain liberty, they must be willing to bear the cost, to sacrifice if needs be, to put other’s needs ahead of their own from time to time.
As a side note, I’ve talked with several military folks who have spent time in Iraq recently and they tell me this is one of the biggest struggles over there. Too many of the Iraqi people are unwilling to pay the cost liberty requires. They turn the other way in silence when those who long to tyrannize them do their violent work.
If they don’t step up, the inevitable result will be an eventual return to despotism over there just as Franklin said it would be here.
Heroes of Liberty
Our nation’s history is filled with Heroes of Liberty.
Depending on which numbers you go with, somewhere around 1 million of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have died in wartime over the course of our nation’s history.
Every single one of those million folks has a story of what they did and how they either knowingly or unknowingly put the cause of liberty ahead of their own well being.
Our government recognizes a select few who make that self sacrifice so clear by putting the lives of their brothers in arms above their own with the award of a Congressional Medal of Honor.
Today I’d like to highlight one of the most recent of those heroes for you, Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith.
SFC Smith was assigned to the 11th Engineer Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division right up the road from me at Fort Stewart, Georgia in 2003 and took part in the liberation of Iraq. Here is the text of his citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:
Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy near Baghdad International Airport, Baghdad, Iraq on 4 April 2003. On that day, Sergeant First Class Smith was engaged in the construction of a prisoner of war holding area when his Task Force was violently attacked by a company-sized enemy force. Realizing the vulnerability of over 100 fellow soldiers, Sergeant First Class Smith quickly organized a hasty defense consisting of two platoons of soldiers, one Bradley Fighting Vehicle and three armored personnel carriers. As the fight developed, Sergeant First Class Smith braved hostile enemy fire to personally engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons, and organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from an armored personnel carrier struck by a rocket propelled grenade and a 60mm mortar round. Fearing the enemy would overrun their defenses, Sergeant First Class Smith moved under withering enemy fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged armored personnel carrier. In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force. During this action, he was mortally wounded. His courageous actions helped defeat the enemy attack, and resulted in as many as 50 enemy soldiers killed, while allowing the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers. Sergeant First Class Smithâ€™s extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the Third Infantry Division â€œRock of the Marne,â€ and the United States Army.
For a better idea of what that type of gallantry looks like, watch this video which depicts the events of that day:
For SFC Smith and for every one of the million who have offered the ultimate sacrifice to help preserve my liberty I will take today to remember.
And to say a very personal thank you.