On November 11, 1985, President Ronald Reagan delivered a Veterans Day address at Arlington National Cemetery, shortly after laying a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
His speech that day was excellent, as most of his speeches were. It was a beautiful eulogy to all United States veterans who had served in our military, both those who, by God’s grace, returned home from the frontlines, and those who gave their last full measure of devotion for the nation on the battlefield. His speech was also a passionate plea in defense of truth. It was a clarion call for the beneficiaries of our veterans’ bravery to fight, now and in perpetuity, against the conditions that lead to war in the first place.
As Reagan began to address the audience gathered in the cemetery, he undertook two tasks. And today, as we honor all our military veterans who have served in the United States Armed Forces, I want to encourage us to take up these twin missions as well.
First, he venerated our veterans. And rightly so. He acknowledged their sacrifice and honored their service, a service rendered, for many, at the cost of their own lives. He valorized those who willingly offered their lives on the field of battle and yet endured to see the fruits of the labors work peace for our time, and those who paid the price in full, proudly, but sadly returning home in a flag-draped coffin. Reflecting on who our veterans are, Reagan insightfully noted that “the imagination plays a trick. We see these soldiers in our minds as old and wise. We see them as something like the Founding Fathers, grave and gray-haired. But most of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives — the one they were living and the one they would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers, and grandfathers. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for our country, for us. And all we can do is remember.”
But I would argue Reagan did more than merely remember the sacrifice of our veterans that day. And we should follow in his example and do more than just memorialize them today, 36 years later. Because along with remembering, hallowing, honoring, and thanking our veterans for their service, Reagan spoke to the soul of our nation, reminding us, its blessed inhabitants, of what we stand for—what our veterans fought for. He held forth the principles for which they served. He recounted the transcendent ideas that animated their efforts—liberty, freedom, self-determination, and respect for human rights. He reexamined the patriotic beliefs that lit such a raging fire in their chest that they were willing to follow its flame across oceans and mountainous terrain, into the face of danger and enemy fire, letting nothing but death’s cold embrace extinguish that personal inferno of commitment to their cause.
Reagan reminded his listeners that day, standing amongst those white crosses on the rolling green hills of Arlington, that the defining feature of our veterans isn’t primarily their willingness to wage war, but their willingness to stand, to sacrifice, for the principles that yield peace. Reagan reminded them that “the living have a responsibility to remember the conditions that led to the wars in which our heroes died.”
Thus, it was so in 1985. And 1995. And 2005. And 2021. Today, on Veterans Day, if we, the living, the ones who breathe free air because of the courage of our veterans, want to honor the lives and memories of those who served in our Armed Forces, then we must relentlessly stand guard against the conditions that lead to war in the first place. We must work against them here and now. We honor our veterans, past and present, by striving to prevent the need for creating future classes of combat veterans and future monuments to the fallen.
And one of those conditions for conflict, for death, for uniformed battle enjoined, for nation rising against nation, and son against son, that Reagan drilled down on in 1985 is the “attack on the truth.” Therefore, if we want to rightly honor our veterans, we must defend the truth.
Reagan reminded his listeners, “We endanger the peace and confuse all issues when we obscure the truth; when we refuse to name an act for what it is; when we refuse to see the obvious and seek safety in Almighty. Peace is only maintained and won by those who have clear eyes and brave minds. Peace is imperiled when we forget to try for agreements and settlements and treaties; when we forget to hold out our hands and strive; when we forget that God gave us talents to use in securing the ends He desires. Peace fails when we forget that agreements, once made, cannot be broken without a price.”
To fully appreciate this exhortation, recall that Reagan delivered this speech in 1985. The Cold War was raging. As Reagan considered the sacrifice of American veterans stretching from the Revolution through the Civil War through World War II through Vietnam, no doubt this pressing question weighed heavy on his mind and heart: How can he lead the United States to triumph against the “evil empire” of the truth-twisting Soviet Union without creating an entirely new category of combat veterans, World War III veterans?
Ultimately, Reagan and the West prevailed against the Soviet Union without a global war. The Berlin Wall was brought down, not by the violence of war, but by the onslaught of words of truth.
Today, on the other side of the Cold War and the very hot Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, let us renew our commitment to truth and as the primary means by which we honor our veterans. Let us all be those who have “clear eyes and brave minds” aimed at maintaining, promoting, and preserving peace.
I was privileged to serve as a civilian appointee at the Department of Defense. Working alongside of our warfighters was one of the greatest honors of my professional career. While many of us may never be called to take up arms in defense of our country, we should all want to honor the willingness to do so by fighting with strength and valor on the battlefields of truth in whatever arena we are called.
So today we honor and remember our veterans for their bravery, their loyalty, and their service. But we do more than just remember them, though we certainly don’t do less. We remember them, our veterans, and honor them, our soldiers, by harkening to President Reagan’s closing words and adopting them as our own call to arms in these days of peace:
“All we can do is try to see that other young men never have to join them. Today, as never before, we must pledge to remember the things that will continue the peace. Today, as never before, we must pray for God’s help in broadening and deepening the peace we enjoy. Let us pray for freedom and justice and a more stable world. And let us make a compact today with the dead, a promise in the words for which General Ridgeway listened, ‘I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.’”