We Do Not Fear Our Soldiers – Memorial Day 2006
By: Warner Todd Huston
On March 15th, 1784 at twelve in the afternoon, after eight long, exhausting years of war, General George Washington unexpectedly entered a room filled with his highest officers gathered together to consider how to address the Continental Army’s predicament. A shocked gathering listened to their commanding General address them.
A letter had recently been passed around the officer corps of the Revolutionary army calling for them to consider leading their army in a march upon the Congress, to lead a coup and take hold of the recalcitrant government forcing them to subservience to the military. The officers and men had not been paid for many long months and, with the war with England now over and fairly won, these men wanted what was due them and if they didn’t get it, they threatened to take over. This “Newburgh Address” denounced General Washington claiming he had no ability to care for his men and no inclination to get for them what was promised for eight years of hard service at war. Congress and the country had failed them and they were angry.
As he spoke Washington denounced the “shocking” and “insidious” document. He warned that if the Newburgh Address were to be followed the result would “open the floodgates of civil discord” and would “deluge our rising empire in blood”. He admonished the soldiery to do their duty to the nation but pledged that he would lobby Congress as hard as he could on their behalf.
Yet, as he finished his prepared remarks, Washington’s entreaties seemed to leave his men cold. He sensed that he needed to say more to convince his angry officers, hurt by a Congress that forgot the sacrifices that they all made for their nascent country, to allow civil government to its machinations. After a pause, he fumbled in his pocket and produced a letter written to him by a member of Congress. He began to read, stumbling and halting. He paused and reached into his coat and produced a pair of glasses, surprising his men who had never seen this lion of the Revolution reduced to such an admission of weakness.
“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country”, the General said. He finished the Congressmen’s letter, but no one in the room heard it for many were reduced to tears of shame. The letter wasn’t important. Washington, with his dignified and touching reminder that all had sacrificed for their war, shamed the officers present and none of them could then go forth to ruin the glorious achievement they had won of the fields of battle against the British by marching on Washington and destroying the new nation they had fought so hard to give birth.
This was the one and only time the country had anything to fear from our armed forces. The army disbanded and Congress and a grateful nation did their best to live up to the commitments that had been made to the veterans. Often it wasn’t enough. Since the Revolution it has repeatedly not been enough. All too often we move on so quickly from war that we forget our veterans. And that is to the shame of us all.
But, on days like this, Memorial Day, we remember them. We honor their struggle, their duty faithfully given, their loss keenly felt. The saying seen on so many Vietnam memorials is not just a banal slogan. “All gave some, some gave all.” Let us think of this little saying. All veterans and serving soldiers give their efforts and suffer the sacrifices of safety and family, but too many give their “last full measure”, as Lincoln aptly put it. There is no glory in merely dying for your country. But there is the thanks of a grateful nation for that sacrifice willingly made so that we can live in liberty and enjoy the freedoms that our many fathers, brothers, sisters and mothers died to protect.
Those soldiers in 1784 realized their duty. They put down their arms and went home after their war was over. They did not rampage through our nation acquiring power unto themselves. Unlike so many powerful armies of other nations in other eras, they went peacefully back to their shops, their plow and their home and hearth to renew life in peace, leaving the civil government to resume their duties and lead the country.
We have never had to fear our own army in the United States of America. Initially, the Founders feared a standing army based on the sad history of other nations where a nation’s army ended up as big a danger as the enemy’s. But our citizen soldiers, our patriots have never been a danger to this great nation. In time of crisis they come forward by the thousands to safeguard our nation and, when the crisis passes, they return home to peace and the waiting arms of family and friends. They return content that they served their time and did their duty, often asking nothing in return.
Well it isn’t enough that we turn from them with a casual “thank you”. Today, Memorial Day, we take more than a passing moment to remember the sacrifices of our patriot soldiers without whom we could not feel safe and without whom we would not exist.
Thank you is a weak expression of the gratitude and awe we common citizens must feel for you, the members of our armed forces past, present and future. Our feelings run far deeper than our poor ability to express them. So, to our veterans, please accept the heartfelt, inexpressible thanks of a grateful nation.
We salute you.