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Jewish World Review May 26, 2000 / 21 Iyar, 5760

Tony Snow

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They marched willingly into battle for the sake of our country

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WASHINGTON -- On certain spring mornings, warm winds coax fog from the waters of the Potomac River. Clouds rise in whisps from the banks and march up nearby hillsides, sometimes as high as the quiet hills of Arlington National Cemetery.

At those times, the nation's most famous burying ground takes on an ethereal look, its plain white grave markers rising not from earth, but cloud. And on these rare mornings, dewey and warm, one cannot help but feel a sense of sacred awe, looking at the headstones, with the Potomac and the nation's capital spread out below.

Most of the men and women who rest here were of minor consequence as far as the history is concerned. They did not serve as presidents, or prelates, or executors of high office. They did not invent great new machines or conquer disease. Many died before they were old enough to make an enduring mark on the world.

Yet, they all earned their place among generals and presidents because they did something few of us have done. They marched willingly into battle for the sake of our country.

This kind of heroism is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to us. We have not fought an all-out war in a quarter century, and the nation has not united behind its military in more than 50 years. The draft expired long ago, and the bulk of our young no longer consider service as a career or even as an occupational way-station.

Furthermore, technology has brought us the possibility of "bloodless" wars, such as the Kosovo incursion -- operations in which we kill others from afar, while denying enemies the chance to kill our own. We no longer speak of "patriotic gore" or assume that we pay for freedom with blood and treasure. For that reason, we don't appreciate fully the lives and deaths of those we commemorate on Memorial Day.

But we owe it to ourselves to try. The rows of markers at Arlington and other national cemeteries serve as stark reminders that evil lives and thrives in the world. Humans instituted and maintained slavery for centuries, and Americans tried to maintain discrimination through force of terror for nearly a century after the Civil War. Our fellow humans venerated such butchers as Hitler and Stalin -- treating them as living gods and worshipping them as men of surpassing vision and virtue.

It has become unfashionable to talk in stark terms of good and evil. We like to pretend they are antediluvian categories that have given way to "subtler" distinctions -- between justice and injustice, for instance, or between fairness or unfairness. But our own wooziness on matters of morality does not change the fact that good and evil exist -- and that most evils flourish under the care of men and women who claim to be doing good. The hills of Arlington attest to this.

They tell us more. America became a superpower less than a century ago. We are relatively inexperienced at the business of maintaining peace. But history does disclose a few lessons about how to avoid trouble. The most important is Teddy Roosevelt's injunction that we carry a big stick.

Potential enemies don't care much about our prosperity. Many despise it. Would-be assailants worry instead about whether we have the might and will to thrash those who attack us. In the years following the First World War, we converted our swords into plowshares. A grinding depression struck the nation, leaving us both weak and poor -- and this combination of unpreparedness and irresolution emboldened the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor.

Today, we devote less of our federal budget to national defense than we did on the eve of that attack. The president and his party actively have opposed the development of defenses that could protect us against such likely threats as random ballistic-missile attacks. They sneer at strategic defense -- not because they have arguments against it, but because they despise the fact that Ronald Reagan thought of it first. And we seem scarcely interested in new forms of warfare -- technological espionage and the potential for devastating bio-weapons.

Military history teaches us an important lesson about such attitudes. When great powers refuse to keep up with the latest developments in technology, they fall. The best example of the phenomenon took place centuries ago, when Mongol hordes overran China. The attackers prevailed because they moved more swiftly and nimbly on the battlefields. They had adopted the very latest innovation -- stirrups on saddles.

Memorial Day delivers an important lesson to those who will hear: When nations drop their guard or ignore the reality of evil, innocent people die.

Nations endure crises and epidemics, but nothing sears the heart as much as war. If we want to avoid the necessity of building more Arlingtons, we should hear the testimony of those who repose there now: Walk softly. Carry a big stick. And never forget.

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