Sacrifice or Duty — One Vets Distinction

November 4, 2009

“These soldiers (Vietnam veterans) were not the decision-makers who involved the U.S. in the Vietnam conflict,” said state Rep. Dale Grubb, author of a unanimous Indiana House and Senate resolution on Vietnam Veterans. “They served our country bravely and faithfully, and their sacrifice should be honored — even 35 years after the conflict ended.”


As a veteran, I dread Veteran’s Day. I recoil at the postured talk about our “sacrifice” for our country. Whatever the good intention, it’s the wrong word; It makes me feel like a sap.
It is too primitive a concept, bringing to mind the sacrifices that ensured plentiful harvests, wealth, the defeat of one’s enemies and so forth — all to the benefit of those who managed not to be sacrificed, of course. And it suggests finality — over and done, move on, even forget.
n. An act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure. — first definition, Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current American Usage, 2009

There is a particular implication for my generation, drafted by lot into jungle combat. It has even more meaning for my father’s generation, piled up as cord wood on distant beachheads.
I once felt a sense of sacrifice — OK, self-pity — as a young man yanked from home and friends into the Vietnam War, It quickly waned. No, that’s not right — it was eclipsed by the self-confidence, self-worth and reverence for liberty that comes with honor and duty.

Now those are the right words, honor and duty, describing the men and women who did their duty, who proved an honor to their fellow soldiers, their families and their hometowns (if not to the elites in that amalgam of power and privilege that has become Washington). And I have learned that such obligation, such heroism, has no finite moment; it must be renewed each day for a lifetime.
In an attempt to give this distinction more weight, try a crude experiment: A Google search of the keywords “Afghanistan,” first with “sacrifice” and then with “honor and duty.” The former results in 3.5 million hits, the latter less than 10 thousand.
So this Nov. 11 we will talk a bunch about sacrifice and only a little about honor and duty. Here is a theory about that: We don’t mention honor and duty because the words drag us into reality — kicking and screaming, for we hate being reminded that a sense of obligation is not put in mothballs with a uniform. Indeed, it has nothing to do with being a veteran.
We have a duty as citizens, albeit middle-aged and unfit, to elect democratic representatives who will honor their office. We have a duty to throw out those who don’t, even when their dishonor awards us preference and privilege.

As fathers and mothers we have a duty to care for our children above all, to honor our own parents. We have a duty to protect the innocent. We (and not our bureaucratic proxies) have a duty to feed and care for the poor, the ill and the aged. It is our duty, not their right — an important point if we are to remain free in a Constitutional Republic.

And as office-holders we must honor the rule of law rather than of personality, to honor our state and national constitutions and their histories, including the politically testy sections on private property, the bearing of arms, states’ rights, sanctity of contract and individual freedom. None of these are postures, please know, but all are principles, unfashionable perhaps, for which many volunteered to fight and for which many died.

We have a duty to defend our nation from enemies within and without. We have a duty to . . .

Yes, the list goes on and on. That’s why it is easier to mumble something about extraordinary “sacrifice,” toss a salute and get on with the day.

Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review. He served more or less honorably on active duty with the United States Navy at the shore detachment, Chu Lai, the Republic of Vietnam.


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