The following is the Memorial Day Service address presented by Judge Karl DeMarce on May 29th, 2017 in Memphis, MO
It is a breath-taking honor, to have been asked to give this Memorial Day address. It is an even greater honor, and deeply humbling, when it comes to someone who knows very well that he has done nothing sufficient to deserve it.
Those of you here today who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States, and those who are serving now, took up an unspeakable burden; and you carried it for all the rest of us. Today we honor the memory of those who gave their lives in the service of our country, and we salute our veterans and those now serving. A solemn and proper Memorial Day observance is the very least that a grateful nation owes to its defenders. For over seven decades now, Memphis has done this well, thanks in great part to the members of VFW Post 4958.
The solemnity of this occasion invites service members and civilians alike to ponder serious things. Memorial Day, and everything that it signifies, ought to challenge us to reflect more deeply on how each one of us might live a life which truly and meaningfully honors those who fought and died for our freedom.
The late Czech playwright and author, Václav Havel, was one who dared to oppose communist oppression, over the course of many years. And because of this, he often endured persecution and imprisonment. In 1989, as the communist system collapsed and suddenly there was no longer an Iron Curtain across eastern Europe, he was chosen to serve as the president of his country. In 1995, Havel was honored at Vlaardingen, in the Netherlands, with the Geuzenpenning. That award is given to commemorate the Geuzen – the Dutch resistance to Nazi Germany. The Geuzen, and the other resistance movements in Europe, fought for a cause which, in 1940, and at least through 1941 and 1942, must have seemed nearly hopeless. Havel’s remarks on that occasion may help us to reflect upon the meaning of citizenship, and the responsibilities of freedom. This is some of what he said:
“The Geuzen—like other Dutch resistance fighters and members of the resistance in my country and in all other countries that were occupied by the Nazis, as well as German resistance fighters—were not just accidental victims of despotism. They were well aware what they were risking, but chose to go into battle, all the same, being deeply convinced that evil had to be combated from the very beginning, regardless of the odds against immediate success. It does not take much effort to arrive at the philosophic conviction that resistance to evil is never pointless. But it is not so easy to risk one’s own life for that conviction, and not to back down even in the face of death; in most cases, only a minority are able to take that course.
Thus, the significance of internal resistance lay not only in the tangible results of their efforts to thwart the pernicious work of the Nazis. More important, the resistance was a phenomenon that time and again restored standards, pointed out values that are worth fighting for under any circumstances, maintained the continuity of respect for those values, and carried the torch of good through the dark night, so that those who lived to see the dawn would have something to turn to, something on which they could build a new life in freedom. Resistance fighters were first and foremost bearers of light, founding fathers and mothers of a better future. To me personally, their endeavor serves as proof that the roots of a free, democratic, and equitable society lie deep in the sphere of morality—that such a society would be unthinkable without a moral anchor. I would even go so far as to say that, if someone is prepared to risk his or her life in a fight whose outcome cannot be foreseen, to risk it not for his or her own sake but for the benefit such an action may possibly bring to posterity, to humankind and human values as such, this decision emanates not from morality as mere human decency, but from morality as a metaphysical phenomenon.
Resistance against Nazism had another dimension as well. It would not have been possible without a sense of solidarity among those who took part. These were people who frequently risked or sacrificed their own lives rather than expose their associates to detection, whose silence, even during cruel interrogation, often saved lives, who helped one another in countless, immeasurably risky ways. The resistance was an authentic human community, growing out of the individual moral will of free human beings and based on the best human qualities. Man is a sociable animal, but there are different ways of associating. The most valuable type of human togetherness is an association based on a free decision by each of its members to work for certain universal human values, on their conscious sharing of commitment to those values and their determination to vouch for them existentially and to vouch for each other. Such an attitude arises from openness toward others, love for one’s fellow humans, mutual respect and trust, solidarity. A solidarity of free human beings.
Nazism, too, had its conceptual roots in a certain kind of togetherness. That, however, was a tribal togetherness of people who were prepared to relinquish their own individual responsibility for a collectivist notion of blood brotherhood and who let themselves be hypnotized by fanatic leaders preaching the perverted idea that collective responsibility for the prosperity of their own tribe and for the expansion of its state justified any betrayal of the basic moral feeling of the individual. People who are weak, who have no faith in themselves, and therefore crave come sort of collective self-confirmation; those who prefer dissolving in the anonymity of a crowd, where a leader does all the thinking for them, to carrying the burden of personal responsibility, who accept the identity of a pack rather than engage in the difficult process of seeking, building, and defending their identity as individuals—such people made possible the emergence of Nazism in Europe. Communist collectivism had a similar background. Both inevitably produced totalitarian systems that trampled the very foundations of humanity.
We can therefore say that the confrontation of the resistance with Nazism was the confrontation of an authentic human togetherness with a perverted, degenerate, false one—a confrontation of the solidarity of responsible, moral beings capable of managing their own affairs with a terrible conspiracy of people willing to abandon their individuality and exchange their own responsibility for obedience to a fanatic leader seeking to appeal principally to the one feature over which they had no control—that is, to their national affiliation.”
“The victory over Nazism meant, among other things . . . a victory for the individual human being, for his or her individual rights and freedoms as well as his or her individual responsibility. Thus it was also a victory of the concept of authentic human togetherness over the destructive horror of another type of association, the collectivist togetherness of unfree humans who have given up their individual responsibility.”
Those were Havel’s words. I have shared them with you today, in part because, in all honesty, they are better than anything I likely could have come up with on my own. But more importantly, Havel challenges us to remember, and to understand, things which the people of our great Republic must never allow ourselves to forget.
It has now been over seventy years since the final Allied victory over the Nazis and imperial Japan. It has been over 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its oppressive communist empire. That is a long time in which to forget. Entire generations have come of age, with no personal memory of those times. The challenges of our time do not look exactly like those of the past, but the world remains full of dangers. It always will.
As our nation rightly and properly seeks to honor the memory of those who fought in World War II, and to recognize those of that “Greatest Generation” who are still with us today, let us ask ourselves: Do we still truly understand why they had to go to war? Are the Americans of today willing to defend what they won for us? The vast majority of those my own age and younger – myself included – have not yet been called upon personally to face such decisions, or to make such sacrifices.
We honor our nation’s fallen heroes in our own lives, when we freely and cheerfully accept and take up the responsibilities of citizens in a democratic republic.
In every generation, we are called upon to learn and to understand for ourselves, a paradox that the founders of our nation perhaps understood much better, that Václav Havel emphasized in his remarks that I quoted, a few moments ago. Our personal freedoms, our most basic rights and our liberties as individuals, can be maintained only when we are also willing to accept the responsibility that at times it is necessary to sacrifice much, and sometimes all, to protect the freedoms, rights, and liberties of others. Others that we may never meet. Others that we may not really even like. Others with whom we may profoundly disagree, about very important things.
On the surface, freedom and responsibility can look like opposites. On one hand, Freedom seems to sing to us, “You can do whatever you want, you can be whatever you want.” But on the other hand, Responsibility looks at us sternly and says, “You cannot do whatever you want and be whatever you want, because there are important things which must be done, whether or not you want to do them – and whether or not they may benefit you personally.”
The paradox is that while freedom and responsibility may seem to be opposites, in real life the one never exists without the other. Individual responsibility cannot thrive, unless people actually possess the freedom to develop it and to exercise it. But freedom cannot be maintained, if individual people, in their own hearts, feel no profound sense of responsibility to one another, to family, to community, and to country.
If too many people stop believing in these ideals, and sustaining them by action in their own lives, then a republic cannot survive. History is littered with examples of republics which did not survive – and we must learn from them, in order that we might not share their fate.
The wrong path is always tempting. It is easy to yearn for the strong leader who will do our thinking for us, who will tell us what we must believe, what we must think, how we must live. And in every generation, in every nation, there arise a few men and women, mad for power – would-be dictators, who readily seize upon that chance, should it be placed before them.
And likewise, it can be tempting to yearn for a fake “freedom” which exists only by crushing the rights and consciences of others, by forcing them into submission to one point of view which, at a particular point in time, may be deemed acceptable and correct. Those who push for this kind of “freedom” nearly always believe that they are doing the world a favor. And so long as the present government is generally in line with their own point of view, they may indeed feel quite “free.” But this kind of freedom is always false; it is a mask behind which tyrants hide. And the reason is simple, but all too easily overlooked. For if a government possesses the power to crush the rights of the consciences of others, then it also possesses the power to crush our own, whenever it might find it convenient to do so.
The people of the United States chose a better path, when we ratified the First Amendment to our Constitution, along with the other Amendments in our Bill of Rights. The promise of our First Amendment is that we may profoundly disagree with other people, and that they may disagree with us; but the government is not granted the authority to compel any of us to agree with it, or to speak, or to believe, in any certain way. And it is in this basic principle, that we see the true nature of liberty – that real freedom for ourselves can only be maintained, if we also accept the responsibility of supporting freedom for others.
This cardinal responsibility is what President Roosevelt understood, when he delivered his “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress on January 6, 1941, less than a year before our nation’s entry into the Second World War. FDR reminded America that “those who man our defenses, and those behind them who build our defenses, must have the stamina and courage which come from an unshakeable belief in the manner of life which they are defending.” And he called upon our nation to rise up and fight for “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms” – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Authentic, meaningful civic freedom has been a very rare thing indeed, throughout the long history of the world. It must be defended and won anew, in every generation. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have given their lives, and millions more have fought, to sustain these high ideals, expressed so beautifully and so forcefully in our nation’s founding documents. But freedom can also be so easily, so carelessly, given away and lost, by an ungrateful, forgetful people. Many in our own time believe that, at home and around the world, democracy is now in retreat – that authoritarianism and totalitarianism are once again on the march.
My family is blessed to have friends who live half-way around the world, in Ukraine – a nation that continues to be forced to fight for its freedom, to defend itself against Russia’s resurgent expansionistic, imperialistic ambitions. We as Americans ought to be inspired by the example of the thousands of Ukrainians who braved freezing temperatures and brutal violence to stay on the Maidan in Kyiv, through the winter of 2013 and 2014, holding their government accountable for its actions. Dozens lost their lives in that place to the sniper fire of the secret police. And for the past three years, Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and wounded in action, almost every week, while defending their country against ongoing Russian aggression – 98 killed in action and over 800 wounded in action in 2017 alone, including 15 reported wounded in action over the past weekend.
Why do people who have so little to gain personally, and everything to lose, make such sacrifices and take such risks? Only so that their country might have a fighting chance to develop as a free, open, and democratic society, under the rule of law. They are not willing to submit to becoming, once again, a Russian satellite with a puppet government. We who have always lived in a free country may be tempted at times to take our liberty for granted. Those who gained their independence barely a quarter-century ago may be much more acutely aware of what civic freedom is truly worth.
Last year, on the Fourth of July, one of our Ukrainian friends reminded me of the words of our own President Eisenhower: “Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men, and so it must be daily earned and refreshed – else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.”
Perhaps the most basic challenge of citizenship in a free country is that it constantly and unrelentingly demands of us that we must be better than we actually are – better than we often even want to be. It is natural for us to become frustrated and disgusted with the imperfections of our nation and its government. We will always be tempted to become lazy and indifferent, to grow bitter and cynical, to withdraw entirely into our own private lives and interests. It is much, much harder, to take the time to study and learn our own history, to keep informed of current events, to stay engaged in the civic life of our community and our nation, to seek out paths of humble and useful service to our neighbors, and to make even greater sacrifices, if called upon to do so.
To live and to serve as citizens, in the highest and best sense of that word, has never been an easy or simple task, in any generation. It is frustrating. It is aggravating. It often comes with immense cost and bitter disappointments. But if we will take the time to learn, to remember, and to teach our children and our grandchildren, just what it was that those Dutch resistance fighters, and our own American soldiers and sailors, our Marines and airmen, and so many others, were fighting against in World War II – and what they were fighting for – then we might understand better for ourselves, why we must never forsake the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.
Perhaps in Václav Havel’s thoughts from twenty-two years ago, we can begin again to find deeper meaning in our time for the timeless words delivered by President Lincoln at Gettysburg, almost 153 years ago: “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
To those who have given their lives in the service of our nation, this must be the very least that we owe them.
May God guard and keep those who serve in our nation’s Armed Forces, and may God bless America.