It’s an honor to be with you today to participate in this Veterans Day ceremony here at Arlington National Cemetery. Veterans Day and Memorial Day are but 48 hours on the clock – two days that should remind us to remember 24/7 and 365 – the remarkable men and women who valiantly served our country in war and peace.
It is fitting to recognize that all of the other national cemeteries – ranging from the Punchbowl to Point Loma to Cape Cod to Normandy – are also marking the occasion – as Americans have fought for freedom in all corners of the world. If our fallen are not here physically, they are here in spirit.
Many of you know the history of this hallowed ground – that before it became a cemetery, it was Robert E. Lee’s wife’s estate – that the Union seized the property at the recommendation of Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who wanted to dispense a dose of retribution for Lee’s decision to side with his native state of Virginia at the outbreak of civil war. So what was initially intended as a personal affront instead became an iconic monument to all of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. It is the sweetest of ironies.
Many famous Americans are buried here. There are 5 star generals, fleet admirals, and presidents. But the vast majority of those here were not famous, were not of high rank or special privilege. There are hundreds of thousands of stones marking the remains of anonymous enlisted veterans, most of whom were in the prime of life when they were killed. It is these men and women that give Arlington and our other national cemeteries their exalted character. This land was first consecrated by them – and without them this nation would not have long endured.
In recent years, Arlington has been chosen as the final resting place of many of today’s fallen heroes – veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan – our ongoing, present-day wars. The young enlisted men and women of America’s military – I see many in attendance today – are our most precious national treasure. Prior to 9/11, our enemies thought that young Americans were too self-centered to take up arms when their country called. Section 60 here is physical proof of how wrong our enemies were. Young Americans understand that when you serve America, you serve more than a country, more than a geographic location. When you serve America, particularly in her armed forces, you serve the universal cause of freedom.
Terrorists will attack freedom whenever and where ever the opportunity presents itself. So the quote “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance” is more apt today than it was at any other time in American history. The enemy we now face is arguably more dangerous than any we have faced in the past because of the risk of nuclear weapons falling under their control. This unfortunate predicament is the central challenge of our time.
War has marred the human condition since the beginning of history. Perhaps someday we will not have to resort to armed conflict to settle our differences. Until then, we must remain ready to defend freedom with the force of arms. Our freedom was won by the force of arms and by arms it is preserved. Our founders were keen and prescient observers of human nature. In 1782, they depicted our national posture in our Coat of Arms, located on the front side of the Great Seal of the United States. A bald eagle, with wings displayed, is clasping with its dexter talon – its right – an olive branch and in its sinister talon – its left – a bundle of arrows. The eagle’s head is turned toward the side with the olive branch, but the arrows are at the ready.
Today, as on Memorial Day, we honor the fallen. Their presence persists in our national psyche, gracing our own lives and the lives of countless generations of Americans yet unborn. Here at Arlington, the solemnity is palpable. You can’t help but feel the gravitas, the heroism, the devotion and dedication to the cause of freedom. Walking the grounds, it’s impossible not to have a visceral reaction. That’s because Arlington is not a monument to the tragedy of war, but a monument to the greatness of America.
Arlington is where we can quietly and reverently reflect upon the service and sacrifice of the men and women of America’s armed forces. And it is a place where grateful people from all over the world come to honor America itself. Arlington is a final resting place of heroes. But heroism itself can never rest. The very idea of America demands heroic action.
No one yearns for peace more than those who have witnessed war, which is characterized by extraordinary pain, suffering, and horror unimaginable to the uninitiated. To me, the fundamental trait shared by all of these veterans is selflessness. They were unquestionably courageous, yet they were not fearless. A selfless person is willing to risk it all – to overcome their fears and act – on behalf of their brothers and sisters in arms – so that others may live free.
I remember seeing a burial here some years ago. Fixed in my mind’s eye is the image of the Old Guard rendering final honors and an officer giving the crisply folded casket flag to a boy of about seven whose father had been killed in Iraq. After the ceremony, a chaplain walked at his side, and I was struck with wonder at what I would say, were I the chaplain, to assuage the boy’s suffering. ‘Your father died for his fellow soldiers, so that other boys and girls would not feel what you are feeling,’ I might have said. To this day, I want to reach out and comfort that boy. One thing I hope he will understand as he matures is that what his father did was an act of love – love for his country, love for his comrades in arms, love for his son. I hope he will understand that he is strong like his father. And although he has lost his father, he has not lost his father’s example.
In closing, I have just a few words to say to those young soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in attendance. To enlist in America’s armed forces during a time of war was a selfless – and therefore heroic – act. You may not consider yourself to be particularly heroic, but you can count on the other people in your unit – and they can count on you. The rest takes care of itself. When you encounter the dangers that are certain to come, you will emulate the American heroes resting here and elsewhere. You will be inspired by their example. You stand – as they stood – on the front lines in the fight for freedom. You are a testament to our country’s greatness. You are the best America has to offer. You are the reason I’m optimistic about our future.
America is freedom. And no greater honor can be bestowed on the men and women of America’s armed forces than to be remembered for serving the cause of freedom here at home and around the world.
Thank you. God bless you. God bless the heroes who came before you. And God bless the United States of America.