The Irony of Courage — Memorial Day Address 2012

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May 27, 2012 No Comments ›› John Eidsmoe Karl_W_Richter_statue

The Irony of Courage — Memorial Day Address 2012

6 Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them.
7 Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest.
8 This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.
9 Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.

Joshua 1:6-9 (KJV)

Gathering the traditions of different parts of the country, Congress has designated Memorial Day to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.   Other days honor veterans and those who are serving, but Memorial Day is to honor those who have fallen in battle.  ”Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).

General MacArthur, in his Farewell Address at West Point, said of the American man at arms,

My estimate of him was formed on the battlefields many, many years ago, and has never changed. I regarded him then, as I regard him now, as one of the world’s noblest figures; not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless.

His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me, or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy’s breast.

But when I think of his patience under adversity, of his courage under fire, and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism. He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom. He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements.

In twenty campaigns, on a hundred battlefields, around a thousand campfires, I have witnessed that enduring fortitude, that patriotic self-abnegation, and that invincible determination which have carved his statue in the hearts of his people.

From one end of the world to the other, he has drained deep the chalice of courage. …[I]n memory’s eye I could see those staggering columns of the First World War, bending under soggy packs on many a weary march, from dripping dusk to drizzling dawn, slogging ankle deep through mire of shell-pocked roads; to form grimly for the attack, blue-lipped, covered with sludge and mud, chilled by the wind and rain, driving home to their objective, and for many, to the judgment seat of God.

I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory. Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light.

And twenty years after, on the other side of the globe, against the filth of dirty foxholes, the stench of ghostly trenches, the slime of dripping dugouts, those boiling suns of the relentless heat, those torrential rains of devastating storms, the loneliness and utter desolation of jungle trails, the bitterness of long separation of those they loved and cherished, the deadly pestilence of tropic disease, the horror of stricken areas of war.

Their resolute and determined defense, their swift and sure attack, their indomitable purpose, their complete and decisive victory – always victory, always through the bloody haze of their last reverberating shot, the vision of gaunt, ghastly men, reverently following your password of Duty, Honor, Country.

The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral laws and will stand the test of any ethics or philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of mankind. Its requirements are for the things that are right, and its restraints are from the things that are wrong. The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training – sacrifice. In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image. No physical courage and no brute instinct can take the place of the Divine help which alone can sustain him. However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country, is the noblest development of mankind.

Two days ago, I conducted a military funeral in the Black Hills National Cemetery of South Dakota for my last surviving uncle, then-1/Lt Sheldon S. Coe, age 95.  Sheldon was one of those 12,000 U.S. POWs who, along with some 66,000 Filipino soldiers — estimates of the exact numbers vary considerably — endured the 6-day, 65-mile Bataan Death March.  Already weakened by hunger and disease, they were brutalized throughout the march.  Those who could not keep up were summarily shot or bayoneted.  Some were dragged behind trucks by a rope around their necks. Prisoners could be shot simply for asking for food or water.  Then, when they reached San Fernando, they were packed into boxcars so tightly that they could not sit down, transported to Capas, and then marched seven miles more to the prison camp.

There at Camp O’Donnell, the treatment was ghastly.  Starvation rations consisting of often-rotten food, 45 days without a change of clothing, waiting in line 6 to 10 hours to get a drink.  Men shrank from 200 to 90 pounds and tried to supplement their diet by catching rats and mice.  One survivor described being awakened one night by two prisoners arguing over how to divide a snake.  Those sent out on work details were regularly whipped and beaten, and Red Cross medical supplies were often left unopened.  By the end of the war in 1945, about 43% of these soldiers had died, either on the march, or in the railroad cars, or in the prison camps.  We honor these men, and countless thousands like them in this war and in others, for their heroic supreme sacrifice.

But my Uncle Sheldon survived.  He suffered like the others, was transferred from camp to camp, and was finally liberated in Manchuria.  After his release he was promoted to Major and awarded the Silver Star for bravery and the Purple Heart for being wounded in action.  But his heroism doesn’t end there.  The VA rated him totally disabled, and he could have lived the rest of his life as a disabled veteran.  But instead, he returned home, raised a family, started a business, rebuilt his life, and, along with millions of other veterans, rebuilt America.  And while Memorial Day is for those who died in war, Congress has designated the entire month of May Military Appreciation Month, so it is entirely proper that we honor him, and all those who have served and are still serving, in this service here tonight.  We honor some for making the ultimate sacrifice.  We honor others for being willing to make the same sacrifice, and for making other sacrifices that may have required equal courage.  I could regale you with tales of my own military heroism, but I doubt that you’d be very impressed.  As a Judge Advocate, all of my “heroism” took place in a military courtroom or at a military desk.   But that duty, too, is necessary to the war effort.  The quartermaster, the drill instructor, the chaplain, the medic, the mechanic — all perform services that are vitally necessary for victory in war.

The service continues, and the sacrifice goes on.  Our Lord warned us that throughout time we will hear of “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6), and we will need the courage God commended to Joshua today and tomorrow, just as before.

But what is courage?  Is it the absence of fear?  That may be a definition, but it’s not what courage really is.  I recall a survival training camp in Boy Scouts, when I was about 12.  Each of us, in turn, had to crawl across the trunk of a fallen tree that spanned a deep ravine.  And I was scared.  That ravine was twelve thousand feet deep!  Well, actually it was probably about twelve feet deep, but it seemed like twelve thousand to me. I trembled as I crawled across, and I expected to be scolded when I was finished.  But instead the Scoutmaster told me, “You showed real courage there.  Anybody can do something he’s not afraid of.  It takes courage to overcome your fear and persevere.”

And that’s the first lesson.  Courage is not the absence of fear.  Picture a fighter pilot surrounded by hostile MIGs that any second could blast him into eternity.  If he’s not afraid, he’s not courageous; he’s out of touch with reality!  Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is doing the right thing despite the danger, despite your fear.

Second, courage is not foolishness.  The Marines, especially, will never leave their comrades on a battlefield, risk their lives  facing hostile fire to bring them back, alive or dead.  But a good Marine will not stand up in the trench with a target painted on his forehead, saying “Shoot me.”  Courage involves taking risks, but not unnecessary risks.  There is no conflict between true courage and prudent caution.

Third, courage is not looking for a fight.  In martial arts, we always teach young people to walk away, even run away from a fight if you possibly can, even though you’re taunted and ridiculed for doing so, and even though you know you can win.  Sometimes, it takes more courage to walk away from a fight than it does to fight.

Fourth, courage is not hatred.  Soldiers who fight because they hate the enemy are unstable, and they either burn out quickly or make fatal mistakes.  A true soldier fights out of duty, not out of hatred.  He knows what he is fighting for — his loved ones, his country, his flag, his Constitution, and the Biblical principles that inspired them –, not just what he is fighting against.  A true soldier fights, not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.

And there is courage in peace as well as heroism in war.  Your test of courage may be taking an unpopular political position, risking your job because you refuse to falsify statistics, not going along with a popular but immoral fashion, befriending an unpopular kid at school.   Some of the most courageous people of all may be facing daily battles for life and health as they linger in hospitals and nursing homes.

You may be thinking of a time when you failed to show courage — when you should have come to someone’s aid but were afraid,  when you should have spoken up but lost your nerve, that meeting where you kept your hands down rather than cast the lone dissenting vote.  If so, consider this:  one loss of nerve doesn’t make you a coward.   Think of the Apostle Peter, who three times denied his Lord, and then, when the cock crowed, he went out and wept bitterly.  That, I suggest, was the defining moment of Peter’s life:  he faced himself, saw his real self behind the bluster, and knew that by himself he was nothing.  Drawing upon the Lord’s strength he became among the boldest of the apostles, and according to church tradition he was crucified for his faith, upside down at his own request because he said he was not worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord.  Like Peter, you have courage, because courage is a choice, and the more you choose to practice courage, the more natural to you that choice will become.

And we will all need courage, for as Plato said, only the dead have seen the end of war.  Whether domestic terrorism, foreign invasion,  nuclear attack, cyber warfare, biological warfare, or threats as yet unimaginable, and we must will draw upon the courage of those who have gone before.  As General MacArthur said,

The long gray line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.

General MacArthur closed his Farewell Address with these words to the cadets:

The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished – tone and tints. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen then, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll.

In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.

Today marks my final roll call with you. But I want you to know that when I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.

I bid you farewell.

This year Trinity Church marked the funeral of Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar (http://morallaw, a Marine, a Korean War veteran, and a hero in war and peace.  In 1985 the City of Montgomery, under the leadership of Mayor Folmar of this Church, proposed to build a Monument to Powered Flight at Maxwell Air Force Base.  Lt. General Charles Boyd, Air University Commander, suggested a statue of a distinctive hero.  He might have chosen a Air Force general like Hap Arnold, or Billy Mitchell or Curtis LeMay, but instead he chose a 24-year-old First Lieutenant named Karl Richter.

A 1964 Air Force Academy graduate, Lt. Richter flew F-105s over North Vietnam.  The common practice was that after 100 combat missions over Communist territory, a pilot’s duty was finished.  But Lt. Richter volunteered for, even insisted upon 100 more missions, earning the Silver Star and the Air Force Cross.  After the second 100 missions, Lt. Richter continued to fly and fight, and on 28 July 1967 his aircraft was shot down.  He ejected, but he was badly injured as he landed on sharp rocks.  A rescue helicopter evacuated him, but before they reached the hospital he died.

Lt. Richter’s statue (above) stands on Maxwell Air Force Base today.  On the base of his statue are the words from Isaiah 6:8:  ”Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?  Here am I, send me.”

Here is the final lesson of courage:  The ultimate act of true courage is to place oneself unreservedly at the command and will and service of God.  And here is the supreme irony:  Only when we place ourselves unreservedly at the command and will and service of God, are we truly safe.

This Memorial day, may God bless all who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.  May God bless all who have served, all who are serving, and all who will serve. And may God bless America!

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