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Memorial Day, 2011

History, National Issues, Perceptions

Memorial Day 2011

Today, Memorial Day, 2011, our daily newspaper printed a tribute to the ten Wisconsin servicemen who lost their lives this past year in action. All were killed in Afghanistan, a war which today makes no sense. There was a time when that God-forsaken hostile place sheltered al Qaida, the attackers of our World Trade Center twin towers, costing nearly 3000 civilian lives. Since that initial action, al Qaida has not been a significant presence. Our military is fighting and dying against the Taliban, an indigenous Afghani tribal sect, who never did us any harm. To prolong this killing ground is an insult to the courage and sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform.

Yet, they fight on, obeying orders issued by a political entity across the ocean. This is the lot of the soldier, to obey without question. The tragedy of history is that old men--some not so old--initiate wars but it's the young who fight and die in them. It's called duty.

So, on this great, sad holiday, here is a tribute to their courage and love of country, right or wrong, for which they fight.

Thank you, heroes now and past; God bless you all. And to the fallen, rest in peace and honor. You will not be forgotten.


Some of you may remember seeing this--I reprint it every Memorial Day--but I believe it is the best tribute to the courage and character of the American military that I have ever seen. It is especially appropriate on this the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th President of the United States of America.

Normandy American Cemetery Memorial (cemetery in distance)


This is a speech given by President Ronald Reagan in Normandy on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, June 6th, 1984. In the audience were surviving members of the Second Ranger Battalion who in the face of withering fire had climbed the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc at Omaha Beach, where a German artillery post had been emplaced to direct deadly fire down on the landing American troops. Had this position not been neutralized, the tenuous U.S. beachhead might well have been wiped out, seriously endangering the entire D-Day invasion.

Lest we forget ……


The Boys of Pointe du Hoc


We're here to mark that day in history when the Allied peoples joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history. We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon.

At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting only 90 could still bear arms. Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender's poem. You are the men who in your lives "fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor."

I think I know what you may be thinking right now, thinking "we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day." Well, everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren't. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him. Lord Lovat was with him, Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, "Sorry I'm a few minutes late," as if he'd been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he'd just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken. There was the impossible valor of the Poles who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold, and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore: The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland's 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England's armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard's "Matchbox Fleet" and you, the American Rangers.

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith, and belief; it was loyalty and love.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge, and pray God we have not lost it, that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all know that some things are worth dying for. One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought, and felt in their hearts, though they couldn't know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4 a.m.; in Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying and in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell. Something else helped the men of D-Day: their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer he told them: "Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we're about to do." Also that night, General Matthew Ridgeway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: "I will not fail thee nor forsake thee."

… We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars: It is better to be here ready to protect the peace than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We've learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.

… Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgeway listened: "I will not fail thee nor forsake thee."

Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their value, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

Thank you very much, and God bless you all.

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