Today is the convergence of two distinct days that merit national attention and pride. First, in chronological order—and maybe pride of place for Devil Dogs—248 years ago today, the Second Continental Congress commissioned a young Philadelphian, Samuel Nicholas, to serve as the first commandant of the United States Marine Corps (though it was then called the Continental Marine Corps—on account of our not yet having trounced the English). Secondly, today is the observance of Veterans Day—which is officially celebrated tomorrow. What with the shared observance, Marine Veterans just might be a little louder about things than usual.
Shortly after his commissioning, the inaugural Marine Corps commandant proceeded to draw recruits for the new military organization, setting up a base of operations at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia. Established as America’s expeditionary force in readiness, the Marine Corps has served ever faithfully as a warriorhood bound by the simple purpose of winning fights on behalf of the nation, its progress, and its ideals.
The tradition of setting aside a particular day to honor American veterans extends back to the end of the First World War, which concluded at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Dubbed “Armistice Day,” it was an occasion to honor the veterans of that great conflict. But because the War to End All Wars didn’t, in 1954 Congress amended the commemoration by changing “armistice” to “veterans” in order to honor all military personnel who have worn the uniform of the nation, whether in war or peace.
It’s worth noting, remembering really, that Veterans Day is just one of three holidays honoring our military. Correctly distinguishing between them is important, if sometimes confusing. Definitions help. Per US Code, a “veteran” is one who served in the US military and was subsequently released on conditions other than dishonorable. The past tense is important. Armed Forces Day, probably the least well known of our martial holidays, honors those who are currently serving. Memorial Day, as the name ought to imply, is for remembering those Americans who gave their lives while serving the nation. Though Veterans Day carries a dimension of this memorial component in that it officially honors all veterans whether living or dead, in practice the day is largely devoted to thanking living veterans for their service.
Sixty years ago, President John F. Kennedy, while honoring a different occasion, spoke something that is relevant to both our national observances this day: “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” Taken together, these two national occasions that merge together today remind us that it is meet and proper to honor those men and women who have stood on freedom’s wall.
So, on this day, Americans of all faiths or none take a moment to remember that we—the many—live under debt—to the few. Christians should be the first to do so. While the “few” we honor today are not specifically the fallen, everyone who has put on the cloth of the nation knows that in the performance of their duty they may be called to sacrifice everything. If we’re right to believe there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend, then, clearly, the willingness to do so is the same kind of love. Veterans Day, therefore, is an opportunity to fulfill, in a modest way, the obligation to pause, recognize, and reflect upon the fact that we are a free people free to enjoy the fruits of a free society—including the first freedom of open worship—because since the birth of our nation some men and some women have willingly stood between us and the beasts and fought and killed and risked death to keep us safe. In response to such service, gratitude is appropriate.
My own consciousness of this debt is continually reinforced in two primary ways. First by the friendships—both deep and wide—that I have forged with active duty, retired, and former servicemembers through my professional work as a teacher, scholar, and ethicist who focuses on the moral dimensions of war. Their presence in my life reminds me that freedom isn’t free. They also remind me that any of my ethical reflections and moral prescriptions had better reflect reality as our servicemembers experience it. Ethics is supposed to work at the level that life is lived. My work must do the task of force multiplication, serving those serve intellectually and morally so that they can fight with probity, confident that the martial task is a divine vocation that can be pursued justly and in fidelity to the deepest moral and theological commitments. May God judge me harshly if I do not serve our military in this way.
Second, as I have written of before, there is a photograph I have of my paternal great-grandparents standing near a collection of framed portraits of their four sons and daughter, my grandmother. All the children are in military uniform, save one—he died as a toddler of a botched tonsillectomy. One among the others, and bearing the uniform of the Army Air Corp, is my great-uncle Edward, from whom I received my middle name. Uncle Ed was a gunner assigned to the 783rd Squadron of the 55th Bomber Wing. He died on takeoff over the airfield in Pantanella, Italy; when a device placed by an Italian saboteur detonated, killing him and the rest of his B-24 Liberator crew. As providence would have it, Uncle Ed died during the squadron’s first (and only) mission to Slovakia, where their objective was to hit a marshaling yard in Devinska Nova Ves, a suburb of Bratislava.
As it happens, I lived in Bratislava for more than a decade. While there, among other things, I helped build and run a sports and recreation program in Devinska Nova Ves. We built a baseball diamond not far from the main railway station, which was presumably, my Uncle’s intended targeting point. I knew nothing of Uncle Ed’s attempted mission while living there. And while it’s silly, the fact of it all makes me now feel somehow connected to him—as if I managed to get to where he was trying to go. Of course, and even better, I got to throw baseballs when I got there, not bombs (My guess is Ed would have liked that better too). This anecdote touches on something that mustn’t be missed: our national holidays honoring our nation’s warriors ought to remind us that bombs must sometimes come before baseballs. This is to say, war is sometimes required to make the conditions for peace and other good things possible. The good work that was done on that baseball field—the simple joys of kids playing games with strong and healthy bodies in a free and self-determining society and with aspirations for a meaningful future—was purchased at the cost of men like my Uncle Ed being willing to stand and risk everything to resist those who crossed borders without cause in order to subjugate their neighbors.
This isn’t to make a fetish of either war or nation. But it is to acknowledge the realities of human life. Wars are terrible things. But sometimes they are necessary to prevent or end things that are more terrible still. The Christian tradition of just war takes seriously two truths. First, it recognizes, as the beginning of Genesis teaches us, that human beings, made in the image of God, have a responsibility to exercise stewardship, or care—dominion—over all the earth. It also recognizes, second, that dominion in this world will be exercised in light of the reality of human sin. There are some people, and some nations, that have no interest in loving their neighbors but only in dominating them. Horrors like the events of October 7th testify to this. Therefore, and however lamentable, the just war moral framework insists that there may be times when a political sovereign—that person or body over whom there is no one greater charged with the care of the political community, determines, in the last resort and for the aim of peace, that nothing other than the proportionate and discriminate use of military force will retribute evil, take back what has wrongly been taken, or protect the innocent. In such cases, and only such cases, war is required to restore order, justice, and to make possible the conditions for reconciliation.
Today should remind us that the political conditions necessary for human beings to flourish cannot be had for a trifle. They are secured at a cost—sometimes a very great cost. This cost isn’t merely the physical risks our warfighters take. It includes the moral risks, the spiritual bruising, great and small, that comes from doing terrible things—even if both morally appropriate and necessary—to our enemy-neighbors. Today, therefore, ought also to remind us that while there is nothing glorious about war in and of itself, there is surely something glorious about being a nation composed of men and women who are willing to stand on freedom’s wall, in service of their neighbor and just cause, and to justly fight those wars that are necessary and just to fight.
To all those men and women who have done so: thank you. And, to some of you, Oorah!
* This post was adapted from an essay written for the newsletter of Rockbridge Christian Academy, a classical Christian school in Crownsville, Maryland. Rockbridge is doing its bit to build boys and girls into men and women of faith with the character to serve their neighbors, the nation, and the wider world in hope and love with justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance.