As we honor and celebrate U.S. veterans on Memorial Day, especially those who lives were taken, let’s also reflect on why they serve. Among our nation’s bedrock values are liberty, enterprise and opportunity.
Liberty must come first. Yet where not granted, it must be taken.
As Elizabeth D. Herman wrote in Time, before there was a United States there were the “rough troops” who “shouldered the task of defending a nation that was…not yet truly born.”
An Apprentice Blacksmith’s Story
One was Peter Mackintosh. He was a 16-year-old apprentice blacksmith in Boston when one night a group of young men rushed into his workplace and smeared ashes on their faces before running down to Griffith’s Wharf to dump tea into the harbor and begin the American Revolution.
Mackintosh, Herman writes, later “served in the Continental Artillery as an artificer, a craftsman attached to the army who shoed horses and repaired cannons including one mortar whose repair General George Washington oversaw personally. During his last years, Mackintosh and his lawyers fought for the pension he deserved. The government awarded it to his family only after his death” which came on November 23, 1846. He was 89.
Disrespecting Vets: The Government Can Do Better
Sadly, Mackintosh’s treatment at the hands of his government still resonates today. Some 40 vets died waiting for appointments at a veterans medical facility in Phoenix.
Recently adding salt to the wounds, Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald said concerns about excessive wait times were overblown because Disneyland doesn’t track wait times either, it’s the larger experience that counts.
Yet that experience has been anything but salutary. As the Washington Post has reported, there’s been a deeply-ingrained culture of mismanagement at VA hospitals. Years of reports have been issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General, and even as older problems begin to get attention, new ones continue to accumulate.
It was recently reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs had mistakenly declared 4,201 vets dead and cut off their benefits until an outcry forced reversals.
A Revolutionary Idea
It all strikes a discordant note. We owe the comforts, conveniences and opportunities of our lives to nation-builders like Mackintosh who risked their lives on behalf of a revolutionary idea. That idea was that before people can determine their own fate, they must first have control of their instruments of state.
Now flash forward to the aftermath of World War II, in which 671,278 U.S. military members and 11,324 in the Merchant Marine gave their lives to lead global resistance against the existential threat of imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
To Understand, Visit A Military Cemetery
There is no better way to appreciate their sacrifice than to visit an American military cemetery abroad, writes German-born U.S. citizen Uwe Reinhardt, in the Wall Street Journal.
The Princeton University professor of economics and public affairs states, “here rest some of the warriors who sacrificed their lives so that your parents and people in many parts of the world would be free from tyranny and could pursue their dreams in freedom.”
As in the Revolutionary War, their sacrifice and the victory of the U.S.-led Allies had vitally important economic repercussions.
The U.S.-backed Marshall Plan provided $13 billion from 1948 through 1952 for war-ravaged European nations to rebuild cities, villages, institutions and crucially, industrial capacity.
The Liberty Dividend
The result was unprecedented growth and explosion of trade. Europe was primed for it because in immediately preceding centuries, the idea and practice of liberty had already begun to take hold.
The explanation of “our astonishing material progress” in the developed world since 1600 is “in a word, ‘liberty,'” according to a recent essay by Deirdre McCloskey. She’s a distinguished professor emerita of economics and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of the forthcoming “Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World.”
McCloskey explains, “Liberated people, it turns out, are ingenious,” particularly at melding ideas to invent things like railroads, lawn mowers, electric lights, central heating and air conditioning, machine-woven carpets and computer software.
‘Equality Before The Law’ Fosters Free Enterprise
She writes that liberty became economically fertile because it promulgated equality – “not an equality of outcome” but an “equality before the law” that “made people bold to pursue betterments on their own account.”
Liberty is easily assumed by those who have it, but as written on the walls of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., “freedom isn’t free.”
Today’s Volatile Geopolitics Raises Questions
For the United States, this means there are still important questions about our role on the global stage as geopolitical winds gain strength and volatility.
In “Why American Leadership Still Matters,” former Senators Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticuit) wrote for the American Internationalism Project that, “global politics abhors a vacuum, and American retrenchment is sure to create one. There is simply no guarantee that whoever might fill our space would have the capacity, the inclination, or will to keep the world safe, markets open, and people free. If anything, an increasingly brazen China, revanchist Russia, volatile North Korea and ruthless Islamic State collectively underscore the need for more, not less, American leadership abroad.”
Whatever direction is taken in the current dialog about supplemental U.S. defense spending and subsequent iterations of the “guns or butter” debate, remember this on Memorial Day and every day: liberty’s not a “one-and-done” kind of thing.