Monday, May 28, 2012

#148 / Memorial #3

In 1985, I was asked to speak at a Memorial Day dedication at the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Santa Cruz, honoring particularly those American veterans who had died in Southeast Asia. Here are the remarks I made on that occasion:


From time immemorial, on special days like this one, people have gathered together, as we are gathered together, to commemorate and remember men and women who have died in one or another of the wars that seem always to have been part of the human experience. It is customary, at such occasions of remembrance, to ask civic or political leaders to try to capture, in words, what is in fact inexpressible.

To my mind, the greatest dedicatory address ever given on an occasion like this one was the address presented on November 19, 1863, at a national cemetery on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by President Abraham Lincoln.

President Lincoln said that it was both "fitting" and "proper" that we should dedicate a place, or a monument, as a remembrance to those who gave their lives for us. "But in a larger sense," he said, "we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground." Those who died "have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

"It is rather for us," Lincoln said, to be here dedicated, "ourselves, to the great task remaining before us‑‑that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that those dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

If our President were right to tell us‑‑as I think he was‑‑that on days like this one we should be thinking not only of what those we honor have done, but most importantly of what we ourselves must do, then that timeless speech of Lincoln's still speaks today.

It is our part, today, highly to resolve that those who have died shall not have died in vain, and that we, the living, will be dedicated to "the great task" remaining before us.

There is a great task confronting Americans today. It is, and must be, our task to preserve on earth the possibility of freedom, of self‑government, and of life itself. We must do this at a time when all possibility is put at risk by the threat of a nuclear holocaust that can destroy this earth.

This great task is particularly a task that is the responsibility of Americans. Those who have died in wars before this time will truly have died in vain if we, in our generation, destroy the earth and the possibility of continued life itself.

In Southeast Asia, in Europe, in the Pacific, in the great Civil War, and in our Revolutionary War, generations of Americans have laid down their lives, not to protect a perfect freedom, for such perfection we have never attained. They died to preserve the possibility of freedom, and the possibility of equality, and justice, and self‑government‑‑a possibility we still struggle for, and hope for, and for which we, too, must lay down our lives.

Our lives are our time. What do we choose to do with our lives and time? Those who have died for our Nation's sake have laid down their lives in death, in a tangible way. Today we honor particularly those veterans who died in Southeast Asia.
But we, the living, if we are truly to take "increased devotion" from the remembrance of those who have died, must likewise lay down our lives. Let us lay down our preoccupation with what we want, personally and individually. Let us lay down our acquisitiveness.

If we are to change the future, we must change what we are doing today. We must change our lives‑‑individually, as well as collectively. We, too, must lay down our lives. We must lay down what we are doing now, and do some new things‑‑something that can help preserve the possibility for continued life for us, for our children, and for our children's children‑‑on into the generations.

That is the "great task" remaining before us. The timeless words of Lincoln do speak today. To ensure that these dead we honor shall not have died in vain, we here must be dedicated to a great task remaining before us. We must dedicate ourselves to the task of ensuring that possibility will be preserved on earth; that it will always be possible to continue that ages‑long struggle for freedom, and for justice, and for equality, and for a government that is of, and by, and for the ordinary people of the earth.

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