At this scared place, on this hallowed ground, there are lessons for today as timeless and as enduring as the tone, language and message of the Gettysburg Address, an eloquent expression of sorrow, humility and conviction that will last as long as mankind.
When President Lincoln came to this great battlefield to honor the dead and the cause he was thinking not of his place in history but their place and the responsibility of all to ensure they had not died in vain .
Now, almost 150 years later, this nation is being tested again, this time on distant battlefields but also at home.
While we are here, paying tribute to bravery and sacrifice of another time, at this hour, young American men and women are in uniform and in harm’s way in foreign lands and dangerous places. They’re on duty in lands where they don’t speak the language, where they’re bewildered by culture and where the enemy doesn’t wear uniforms or hesitate to use scared places and civilian homes to plot their ever more terrifying attacks.
Those fellow American citizens are all volunteers.
They have sworn to sacrifice their lives and their limbs to defend their country and each of us. Their families live in a state of perpetual fear that the next call or knock at the door will bring unbearable news.
They’re proud and patriotic Americans who do this duty for modest wages and at a high price.
A few weeks ago I visited with many of them at Walter Reed hospital in Washington. As I went from room to room, seeing fellow Americans with crushed skulls, missing legs and arms, suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, I was deeply moved by the absence of bitterness and their concern for their fellow soldiers still on duty.
They all came from small towns you’ve never heard of – and none had more than a high school education. Their wives, fiancés, friends and parents were uniformly working class Americans. No one came from an elite university or a place of privilege.
However you feel about the decisions that placed them in harm’s way – supportive, ambivalent or angry – we must not dishonor their sense of duty for they are where they are so we can be where we are. At the very least, we owe their families recognition of their sacrifices and an expression of shared concerns.
No nation should be divided between those in uniform and those not, between those who send their sons and daughters to war and those who do not. We are not two nations, one in uniform, one not. That is unacceptable in a democratic republic, politically, culturally and morally.
You can hate the war but you must honor the warrior.
Very little is being asked of us and so much of them
in a war where so much has gone wrong, where there has been so little accountability or recognition of flawed assumptions and egregious decisions. Yet there also has been so much individual heroic, even noble action in a war that began with a nation uneasy but largely united, now deeply divided.
Those of us far removed from harm’s way owe the warriors and their families our service as citizens and stewards of what they have volunteered to defend.
What we have all allowed to be devalued – our national political arena which for too long has been in the hands of ideological zealots, left to right and back again, hired gunslingers who conduct campaigns with the mantra “Kill and kill again”, narrow interests determined to advance only their selfish needs, whatever the cost to the common welfare – and money changers who have made the nation’s capital into a great bazaar where everything, including integrity, is for sale.
On November 7th America began to say, “Enough.” There were three parties contesting that day. The Republicans, the Democrats and the Fed Up party. Guess which one won?
The balance of power in the Congress has shifted – for the next two years. But if those now picking out their new offices and trying out their chairman’s gavels believe they have a mandate to change the politics but not the tone, to worry first about their special interests and do business as usual, to worry more about party theology than governing, they will alienate the message and the messenger.
In the three greatest crises in American history - the American revolution, the Civil War and the combination of the Great Depression and World War II – this country emerged stronger at the broken places because of a common will to advance common interests. At this place Abraham Lincoln defined forevermore the cost of liberty and the unending obligation of those who are the beneficiaries of these great sacrifices to honor, protect and enrich the freedoms which are so dear.
We live in a world of personal computers and search engines,
e mail and networks, capacity and storage, research and retrieval, entertainment and commerce, chat rooms and web sites. MySpace and Spacebook.
We’re manned with cell phones that take pictures, remember your tastes, indulge your whimsies and play your favorite tunes.
We have video on demand and songs on a chip, games on a screen
Bloggers that blabber and blogs that enlighten.
We’re exposed to hi def and low brow.
We’re the masters of a new universe.
Or are you.
Imagine the power felt by students 100 years ago, those mostly young men who were poised at the cutting edge of their own new century with the new tools available to them:
Electricity, flight, automobiles, telephones, trans-continental travel by rail.
Great fortunes being amassed in steel, oil, banking.
My god, the possibilities.
And yet it became a century of great perils.
Two world wars, the second one giving birth to the nuclear age – and in the center of western civilization the darkest of darkness: a holocaust designed to exterminate a great people and their faith.
Other wars that left deep scars at home as well as on the battlefield.
Communism, a political and economic ideology introduced as an instrument of liberation that became one of history’s cruelest forms of oppression.
At one end of the scale great powers developed weapons capable of ending life on earth as we know it. At the other end, religious fanatics turned their bodies into weapons and their zealotry into suicide assaults.
The code of life was cracked but plagues took new forms.
It was also the century in which the universe of political freedom expanded as it never had before.
When science crashed through frontiers heretofore thought to be impenetrable.
When gender and race discrimination finally made it on to the global agenda in meaningful fashion.
Welcome to the world of perpetual contradictions.
Welcome to the world of unintended consequences and unexpected realities.
Welcome to a world in which war is not a video game, K for combat.
In which genocide and ancient hatreds are not eliminated with a delete button.
You won’t find the answer to global poverty in tools or help.
You can’t fix the environment by hitting the insert heading on the tool bar.
You cannot take your place in the long line of those who came before you simply by sitting at a key board or in front of a screen.
The pace of change is approaching warp speed.
We live on a smaller planet with more people, many of them on the move in a desperate search for economic opportunity and political freedom, a world of ever diminishing open spaces, disappearing natural resources, with great, seismic shifts in political, economic and cultural power.
We live at the apogee of Western civilization and in despair that ancient sectarian rivalries are lethal alternatives to reason and modernity.
We live in a world of a rapidly expanding population of Muslims who love our culture and hate our government, who envy our successes, disdain our pluralism and are enraged by our sense of entitlement.
Young Muslims who live in politically and economically oppressive regimes where they are easy prey for religious teachers who preach jihad against the West as a matter of faith.
We cannot ignore them and as the last four years has demonstrated in tragic fashion, a military response is at best only a part of the equation.
If that rage and hostility is not addressed in a more effective manner in the West and in the Islamic world as well we will live in a perpetual state of terror.
So a primary challenge of our time is to bank the fires of hostility now burning out of control, to neutralize the hatred, to expedite not just global competition economically and politically but also global understanding.
To do so requires more than imagination or a fresh political strategy.
It requires personal commitment.
When I am asked who are the memorable personalities I’ve encountered in more than 40 years in journalism I suspect my interrogators expect me to say, “Dwight Eisenhower, Mikhail Gorbachev; Nelson Mandela; Ronald Reagan; Golda Meier; Dr. Martin Luther King; Bobby Kennedy; Cesar Chavez; Lance Armstrong; Mia Hamm; Bill Gates; Steve Jobs or any number of big , marquee names that made up the headlines of my career.
Instead, I recall the brave young people who risked their lives demonstrating for civil rights in the American South; the young who fought against the war in Viet Nam – and those who stepped forward when their country called and fought in the war; the young surgeon who worked through the night, under fire, in a dimly lit tent to save still another victim of the anarchy in Somalia; the brave young Chinese who stood up to their oppressors during Tianamen Square; the Tibetan lamas who risked their lives for their faith and their land; the gifted biologists in remote rain forests who dedicate their lives to saving this precious planet.
The vast population of people, young and old, of every hue and origin, who gave up comfort and convention to answer their conscience and were guided by their moral compass to difficult challenges, determined to make a difference.
They lived in the real world and took responsibility for it. They did not attach themselves to a virtual experience and find satisfaction in a search engine.
They were the boots on the ground, hands in the dirt, nights in scary places, healing, courageous generation. They stepped into the unknown and made it more welcoming.
It is part of the privilege of my good fortune that I can dine at world class hotels, attend state dinners, chat up kings, queens, billionaires, knock back a beer with Bruce Springsteen; talk back to Jon Stewart and call on movers and shakers on every continent.
But I am never more alive or intellectually and emotionally involved than when I am sitting outside a gher in Mongolia, listening to a young nomadic tribesman describe how he rode his horse 20 miles to vote – or sleeping in a cargo container in the Pakistan earthquake zone with young American relief workers or riding a humvee with American special forces through a combat zone in Afghanistan to a primitive village to determine their medical needs or stepping into a wilderness anywhere in the world with all I need in a backpack, no call waiting, thank you very much.
Life away from the keyboard, the pda and the cell phone is a life in which we connect to the web site of our convictions, an obligation you must carry with you all the rest of your days.
And that role is never more satisfying than when it is exercised robustly, especially when others are attempting to suppress your participation or belittle your beliefs.
These are difficult times. We are at war. And as all wars are, this one is freighted with mistakes, miscalculations, lethal consequences and highly charged emotions.
It is a debate in which we all have a stake.
I have a special place in my mind and in my heart for those who understand that patriotism is not a loyalty oath.
I am never more proud to be an American than when a fellow citizen steps from the pack and says, “Can’t we do better?”
If we portray ourselves as patrons of democracy abroad we must be certain we’re stewards at home of the fundamental tenets of that governing principle – the rule of law, free speech and, most of all, the active participation of an engaged citizenry.
We cannot hand off our obligations as citizens, whatever our party registration or ideological orientation, to the hired guns in both parties who have hijacked our political process, reducing it to little more than character assassination.
These are complex, unnerving times, requiring the commitment of everyone to find our way through them.
Yet, at the national level, in both parties, the inclination is to divide us, to make it more difficult and not very appealing, top become involved in the political process that will define our time.
At the state level Democratic governors in red states such as Kansas, Arizona, Montana are finding solutions and working with the opposition not just against them – as Republican governors are doing the same in the blue states of New York and Massachusetts.
We didn’t become who we are today by imposing on the nation narrow litmus tests of worthiness or building barriers to the reality and the idea of public service.
We can do better.
We are the inheritors of what I call the Greatest Generation, the American men and women who came of age in the Great Depression, when life was about deprivation and suppressed hopes, the generation that then answered the call at home and abroad to fight the greatest war in the history of mankind.
And when it was over, this generation, which had sacrificed so much at your age, came home not to lay down their arms and turn to only their selfish interests, but to build the country we have today – and to re-build their enemies.
So go forth from here with a conviction to carry on their legacy and improve on it.
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