BOSTON — Following Sept. 11, 2001, a day of infamy on which nearly 3,000 died at the hands of terrorists, The New York Times began publishing the names and pictures of the dead. I made a deliberate effort to look at those pictures and to read the names and hometowns of each victim. I wanted to identify with them as much as possible.
Now the Times has published more pictures, names and ages, this time of American war dead. They are part of the 4,000 casualties to have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan since those wars began. They — and their families — deserve our gratitude.
Some politicians who oppose the war — mostly Democrats, but a few Republicans — offer obligatory and oblique references to “the troops” and their bravery, while undermining their sacrifice and objectives by calling for their immediate withdrawal. That is not a policy, unless one regards surrender and retreat only to fight a bloodier war another day policy.
What is remarkable is that America continues to produce the kind of young men and women who are willing to lay down their lives for a principle: the principle of freedom — for others and for us.
This is a characteristic that may not be uniquely American, but it is one this country has fully embraced, as time and time again it fights wars to liberate others and protect itself. As the excellent HBO series on the life of John Adams portrays, the notion of freedom was conceived in the hearts of our countrymen even before America became a nation. It is a story about sacrifice, separation from loved ones and the forsaking of familiar and comfortable surroundings in favor of misery and hardship. The fight for independence involved emotional and physical pain and unenviable loss. But it also produced gain for those willing to pay the price. “John Adams” tells another truth: freedom isn’t free. It must be bought and paid for by every generation and sometimes more than once within a generation.
Freedom is not a natural state — otherwise more people would be free. Tyranny, oppression, dictatorship and the denial of human rights are the norm for much of the planet. Mankind’s lower nature dictates that far too many seek to reduce others to servitude in order to elevate themselves. President Bush has repeatedly said that freedom is a God-given right that resides in the heart of every human. Maybe, but sometimes one must fight to extract it from the hardened hearts of others who want it exclusively for themselves.
Looking at the faces of those who have fallen and driving by Arlington National Cemetery, I am reminded of the cost of freedom. Those who died allow me to travel freely. Those who sacrificed everything invested in freedom for my family and yours so that we can all live our lives where we choose to live them and worship where, and however, we please. These are freedoms most of the world can only dream about.
It has been said that most of us no longer know anyone who is serving in the military and that’s too bad. Some college campuses (like Harvard) continue to ban the ROTC without acknowledging that Harvard might not exist were it not for soldiers willing to fight to preserve academic freedom.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” goes the Kris Kristofferson lyric. But that is a cynical view of freedom. In a city and a state that helped give freedom birth, there are constant reminders of those who were freedom’s midwives. If John Adams, his cousin Sam, Paul Revere and so many others from our past could speak today, they would remind us that freedom is never fully paid for and that its loss would exact a greater cost.
Folk singer Joan Baez plans to return to Cambridge this week to mark the 50th anniversary of Club Passim, where her career of singing mostly protest songs began. That she still has the freedom to sing those songs results from the sacrifices of the patriots who died for her right to protest. It would be nice if she sang a song honoring them, but that’s probably “just blowin’ in the wind.”