Memorial Day 2012: A Discovery of Patriotism at Gettysburg


In today's tributes to fallen heroes of American wars we hear often that "freedom isn't free." No, it is not ... but the bumper sticker phraseology refers neither to budgetary billions nor to mindless patriotism -- and still less to the whizz-bang gadgetry that technological genius can bring to bear. When our old political leaders -- of whatever persuasion -- send our young soldiers to die on battlefields, there is something deeper and more compelling at work than the propaganda of the moment. This bears thinking about.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is through personal experience. One of the most moving moments of my lifetime was a visit to Gettysburg National Memorial on a hot and muggy midsummer day, close to the time of the annual re-enactment of the early July battle. I wore shorts and a sleeveless top and suffered as we toured the battlefield; wondering how soldiers managed to stand up -- let alone fight -- wearing wool uniforms and carrying 50 pounds of gear, in heat like that.

At the end of our trek, we crossed the highway and climbed to the ridgetop where President Abraham Lincoln spoke to dedicate the battlefield. His famous address is carved in stone at the spot where he stood to speak. I paused there a moment to savor a little breeze, and began to read aloud: "Four score and seven years ago ... " In a second or two, an unknown voice joined mine, and then another, and another ... and before the end, everyone on that little hilltop on that July afternoon recited in chorus: "shall not perish from this earth."

How do I know which of them were Democrats and which Republicans? Which progressive, conservative, libertarian? There was no way to tell except that we were all Americans at that moment, with a deep respect for the freedoms which bind us together and for which we will offer blood.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Abraham Lincoln

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