As I sat to write this commentary, CNN was having a panel discussion on the controversy over what Presidents have said to families who have loved ones who have been killed in the line of duty. The graphic reads, “War of Words.”
We overuse military metaphors, which diminishes the seriousness of conflicts where people die and are maimed. I’ve never been in battle, but I suspect a “war” where the weapons are words is nothing compared to being shot at.
The public debate over the last week has been consumed by what President Trump did or did not say to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. Trump’s offhanded and unnecessary comment comparing his outreach to the families of fallen soldiers to previous presidents produced rounds of noxious finger pointing, especially between the President and Florida Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.
Several major news organizations even tried to track down the families of service members who have been killed since Trump took office to see if the President contacted them and whether he was properly empathetic.
It has been an ignominious experience for the country, as bereaved families have become pawns in an unnecessary and spiteful debate. Thank goodness an adult finally entered the room.
Gen. John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff, took to the podium in the White House press room last Thursday to try to provide some context and compassion to the story. Kelly has unquestioned standing since he has been to war, issued orders that sent soldiers to their graves and suffered the loss of a son in battle.
As Politico reported, “In an extraordinary performance that mixed poignant experiences, political strategy, nostalgia for a less hostile society, and a seeming rebuke of his boss, Kelly accomplished what few others have been able to do: he forcefully vouched for Trump in a moment of political peril.”
That’s true, and his comments should help extinguish this tawdry exercise, even though he apparently made an error about Congresswoman Wilson that added some fuel to the media-driven fire.
But the whole ordeal has made me feel as though we are carelessly walking over the graves of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country, our freedom and our liberty. They are entitled to absolute reverence.
So what are civilians supposed to say about the war dead that is meaningful and not patronizing? President Abraham Lincoln addressed that issue at Gettysburg. “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
In other words, their selfless actions speak for themselves. However, Lincoln did leave a way forward for the rest of us.
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, and that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.”
Thus our charge is not necessarily to try to find the right words, but rather to rededicate ourselves to advancing the cause of a more perfect union in whatever way we can. We honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice by earning what they gave us.