Last week, on the day after the Republican Presidential Forum held in Simi Valley, California, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, John McCain was with Rudy Giuliani and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Governor and the former New York City Mayor were formally announcing their endorsement of the Arizona Senator for President. During a question and answer period, one journalist, noting that many California families have members who have died in Iraq in the last seven years asked Senator McCain the following: “What is worth dying for in Iraq?”
Senator McCain responded with the usual platitudes regarding national security, jihadism and protecting the American people.
Not so interesting answer.
Senator McCain’s answer misses the most important point as much as the question does. While, I contend that there have been many causes which were worth dying for, and may be many more to come, there is a greater reason for families to not feel their loved ones have died in vain: duty.
Duty is not a word we often use in America any more. Parents seldom speak to their children on the topic of duty. Coaches seldom impart messages of duty to players. Teachers seldom discuss the concept of duty to students. Politicians seldom mention duty to voters.
Duty is near the top of my list of authentically conservative values. Duty– that short, four-letter word-speaks volumes to Americans who find honor in living a life not centered on their own ambition. First, duty recognizes our place within a society. We are not alone. As much as the liberal or libertarian wishes we could live our lives in isolation, unencumbered by the weight of expectations from others, duty encompasses E PLURIBUS UNUM-out of many, one. We are a collection of individuals operating as a single entity. Our nation’s very name-THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA-is emblematic of our connect-ness. We are many AND we are one simultaneously. And both the whole and the parts are duty bound to each other. Without the states there is no America. Without America we are United to nothing.
Secondly, duty acknowledges our indebtedness to the past. Being a part of something is great, but without a sense that those that have come before have done something special to make my today possible, there can be no sense of duty. When duty is taught, it is always taught as an obligation to the past. We teach that those who have come before us have given something to us and we are in their debt. To eschew the lessons of their sacrifice is to render their actions moot.
Lastly, duty compels us to action. Once we acknowledge our place in society and our debt to the past, duty compels us to act accordingly. It is now our turn to live as honorably as those who have gone before us and to give our descendents what was given to us. Those who not only value the past, but who wish to see the next generation benefit similarly, must now set the example.
Too often we hope that a sense of duty is caught by osmosis. It is not popular to speak of duty, to remind people that they are in debt and that personal sacrifice is in order. But when asked directly, I am sad that someone who embodies duty as well as Senator McCain chose not to speak of its importance.
To ask the question, “what is worth dying for in Iraq?” implies that the worth of a soldier’s death is tied to an outcome. If we “win” in Iraq, if we achieve a certain set of objectives, then and only then, will that death be suitably justified? This is a disservice to our men and women in uniform. Were lives sacrificed at the Alamo in vain? Were lives lost at Pearl Harbor in vain? Were lives given in Vietnam given in vain? If we somehow were to lose the war in Iraq, would all those lives have been for nothing?
The sacrifice of the soldier has merit without regard to the success or failure of the objective. To imply otherwise is to ignore the sense of duty behind the soldier’s participation.
Many families sleep each night in this country with empty bedrooms down the hall. Many closets are filled with clothes that will never need washing again. Many children color pictures of men they can’t remember holding hands with mommy. Yet the grieving cannot and should not wait for a specific outcome in order to determine the worth of the sacrifice.
Families need to look no further than around the kitchen table to find meaning in the tragedy they cannot forget. Parents can look to the values they taught their children. Families and friends can remember the sense of duty that compelled their loved ones to join the military. They can honor the sacrifice made by their beloved by passing on the meaning of duty to the next generation.
What is worth dying for in Iraq? Doesn’t matter. Everything an American needs to justify sacrifice is right here in America–it’s in our museums, our genealogies, our traditions and our future.
What is worth dying for in Iraq? Maybe not gosh-darn thing. But everything we need to render the sacrifice of our American heroes magnificent and worthwhile is within us: duty, honor, God and country. They died because their country put a call upon their lives. They died because they felt duty-bound to respond to that call.
Now THAT’S worth dying for.