Since coming to the staff of the Air Force Association six months ago, I have had cause to reflect on our great organization, our goals, and our dedication to freedom and liberty.
Viewing our nation’s capital from our national headquarters, you can see the spires of Georgetown and the National Cathedral, knowing that just beyond them are the churches, synagogues, and mosques of a free people (One Nation Under God). The eye then turns and focuses on the monuments of our great Presidents who were so instrumental in developing our great nation (Indivisible). And finally, there is the Capitol building, the White House, and the Supreme Court, glistening white in the light of freedom (With Liberty and Justice for All).
We enjoy freedom every day, but seldom think of the sweat, toil, and sacrifices of our forefathers, who flocked to our shores because freedom was denied them elsewhere. We sometimes forget that in their day, freedom was rare — a radical idea to which they bravely pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
When fifty-six of them signed their names to the principles in the Declaration of Independence, they were not committing themselves to empty words. In the ensuing war, nine of them were killed in action, five died as prisoners of war, twelve had their homes burned, several lost sons, one man’s wife died in prison, and seventeen (including Thomas Jefferson) went broke. The legacy of these patriots was summed up by Thomas Paine when he said that those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.
But are we carrying our load today? Most of us are. However, some, in the name of peace, believe we should sharply reduce our defenses that help guarantee our freedoms. A close friend once pointed out that in our concern for peace, the measure of commitment may be seen by what a person is willing to sacrifice.
Herein lies the great paradox. If you grant the assumption that commitment is measured by sacrifice and risk, the greatest commitment to peace is seen in the military — by those who risk their lives in war to attain peace. However, this is not always a popular position. Our free world is full of peace signs and slogans, but many of them seem destitute of goals for which one is to risk life. If peace is defined as a condition in which no one need risk life, then we have survival, but we are hard-pressed to find a reason to live. It may well be that in finding a reason to die; we find a reason for living.
Men and women of our country have given the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. The Revolutionary War claimed 25,324 lives, the Mexican War 13,283, the Spanish-American War 2,446, World War I 116,708, World War II 407,316, the Korean Conflict 54,246, and the Vietnam War 58,302. More military lives have been lost in peacetime training and in such places as Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, and the lonely stretch of water approaching Libya.
Loss of life is always tragic, but death for a good cause is an honorable death. Conversely, death forced on people by demagogues is a horrible waste. A recent study calculated that 119,000,000 people have perished in this century because of political persecution.
Our country has been without war for fifteen years; Western Europe has been without war for forty-three years, the longest period of peace in the history of the continent. So it appears to some that, having achieved peace in their time, it is logical to hammer the swords that have protected freedom into plowshares of economic prosperity and social ease.
Let us not be lulled into the complacency of the good life and come to believe, like the Athenians of old, that peace is more important than freedom. As Plato said so many years ago, only the dead have seen the end of war.
Freedom is not free. But it is also not possible to put a price on freedom. The debate will continue for years to come about how much defense we need. Some will argue that we need less defense; those of us who are better informed will argue for a strong defense that ensures the freedoms bequeathed to us by our forefathers.
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