Memorial Day Speech in Morning Meeting 2014
Good morning. I wanted to begin our observation of Memorial Day by sharing some of my own conflicted thoughts about this holiday and the festivities in which we are about to participate. I also look forward to hearing about the conversations all of you had about Memorial Day in you advisor groups this morning. I thank the kitchen crew for putting together a special brunch for us today.
In the first chapter of his book The Buried Mirror, the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes states that “in the bullfighting ring, Spanish people find their cultural ‘self’ and [in the spectacle of bullfighting] Spain takes the mask of puritan hypocrisy about our relation with nature and transforms it into the memory of our origins… in a ceremony of courage and art and even of redemption.” The bullfight reminds us about how we depend on nature for survival and yet we are shielded from the horrors and darker sides of our dependence on nature by layers of veils. We do not see the work of the butcher or the meat processing plant, nor do we want to acknowledge what goes on there. Memorial Day, for me, awakens me from my own puritan hypocrisy about the comfort of my own life. We live in a prosperous and safe country, one with a power that you might only understand were you to look at it from the perspective of a foreigner. The rest of the world speaks our language and knows our leaders and cultural icons while we can name but a few foreigners who are not musicians, actors or athletes. Memorial Day forces me to consider that much of our growth and our current security is and has been supported by the sacrifice of thousands of men and women who have died to protect what we now enjoy.
I like to think of our country as a beacon of peace and as “city upon a hill” protecting the universal rights of mankind. At our best our military has helped to spread democracy, prevent genocide, and protect the autonomy of nations and ethnic groups. At its worst it has been an agent of destruction and a tool of greed and capitalism. I grew up during the final years of the Vietnam War and was confronted nightly with images on the news of atrocities committed by American soldiers fighting for a cause that no one could adequately explain to me. That War forced me to question any celebration of our military and our soldiers.
However, I have also learned through my own studies of history that it is not enough for our country to be a peaceful or even a neutral bystander in world politics. A country with our resources and might has a responsibility to be a part of the larger human community. Samantha Power, currently the American Ambassador to the United Nations and formerly Secretary of State under President Obama, has spent her career advocating for the protection of the rights of refugees, for the protection of the LGBT community around the world, for protecting religious freedom and ethnic identity, and fighting against human trafficking. Ambassador Power makes a strong case for the use of our military as one tool in a broader policy when the world is faced with evil. She points to the massive genocide in Rwanda in the 1990’s as an example of where the United States acted as bystanders by not intervening to stop the killings and protect basic human rights. She pushed for the American intervention in Libya to prevent genocide there.
What should our role be today in places like eastern Ukraine where Ukrainian autonomy is threatened, or in Nigeria where over two hundred boarding school girls were abducted, or in Syria where civilians are dying by the thousands in a civil war? How might we have saved lives in Sierra Leone in the case we heard about this winter? It is not easy to determine when to intervene militarily and when to use economic sanctions, diplomacy and other tactics to prevent escalation and death. I challenge you to study these conflicts and have an opinion.
Today we honor those individuals who signed up to serve our military not always knowing what enemy they were going to fight or whether their cause would be judged by history as just or unjust. Many of you might have even lost a family member in a war either fighting for the United States or for a foreign country. If you are not from the United States I am curious how your country memorializes those who died in war and what you think of our ceremonies today. Soon we will join the town of Dublin in their Memorial Day Parade. You will gain some insight into a part of American culture that you may not always see at Dublin School. Many Americans believe that our country is God’s chosen country and that we have a unique mission in the world stemming from the values and ideas of our original European immigrants. While you may or not agree with these sentiments I encourage you to listen and gain an understanding of how many Americans see their country and the world. I would love to hear your reflections at lunch today. After our Morning Meeting we will head up to Memorial Field to honor the six boys who died in World War Two and Vietnam.
Let me conclude with a message of hope. I believe that schools like Dublin can be instruments of peace and can lead to the kind of international understandings that find solutions to conflicts before they end in war. The school is intentionally international in its student and faculty composition and even diverse in its domestic composition. It is important for you to learn how different cultures both within this country and across the globe think differently. If misunderstanding can generate conflict, understanding can lead to tolerance or even meaningful collaboration. Read the news, study history, read literature to understand the human condition, learn to communicate through writing, by learning a foreign language, learning to code, or learning to paint, design and draw. Study science and math to help eliminate the roots of conflict. We can develop businesses that help lift people out of poverty and find solutions to our energy crisis that reduce conflicts over oil. I challenge you to honor those who have died by working to make the world a better place.