Angry New Yorker

Friday, May 28, 2004
Memorial Day - What's the price of freedom?

Every Memorial Day weekend I watch a WWII war movie. For this Memorial Day weekend I rented Bataan, courtesy of Netflix. Bataan was released in 1943, during WWII, before we went returned to the Philippines, and included a very young, pre-I Love Lucy, Desi Arnez as Corp. Felix Ramirez. I was stuck home today waiting for the siding guy to give me an estimate, and so I popped the movie in. This movie would appall the Euro can't-we-all-get along crowd.

The plot centers around a single squad of thirteen men. There's no sweeping battle field; no epic tactics involved. Thrown together from other decimated units, the squad's mission is: blow up a bridge, and prevent the "Japs" from crossing and outflanking the remains of the U.S. army to the south. Everyone dies by the end. Let that sink in. That's a 100% KIA rate by the final credits.

Yet, they accomplished their mission, and if any one line stands out -- the movie is not an epic or star-studded -- it's the line the Sgt., played by Robert Taylor, says to one young soldier. He delivers it at the point when the squad has been whittled down to three, and has just finished a brutal hand-to-hand battle with grenades flying like spitballs, thumping tommy guns spitting clouds of smoke, bayoneting galore, and a samurai sword decapitation (though not with today's ho-hum level of gore). The Sgt. states, without fanfare, that "it doesn't matter where a man dies, as long as he dies for freedom."

But do those words still resonate in 2004? What would we do today, given a political climate evidenced by Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, and their minions, were we called upon to fight an all-out-war that would absolutely result in large casualties? On one level the question's more rhetorical than practical, given our military superiority, and the level of technical precision and prowess today's military brings to bear compared to the pre-digital WWII era.

While the world of 2004 is not the world of 1941, and I have great faith in the American people, I wonder if the intestinal fortitude needed to ensure we remain the "land of the free and home of the brave" remains. As a law student, the creeping federalization of criminal law, and the rise of zero tolerance idiocies troubles me deeply. But, freedom ultimately boils down to enough people sharing the values our country was founded upon and being willing to fight for them.

Living in northern Queens, New York City, where the nearest main thoroughfare is Francis Lewis Blvd., I enjoy asking people if they know who Francis Lewis was [bio here]. Few do. Few know he signed the Declaration of Independence, or the terrible price he, along with most of the 56 men whose signatures anchor the Declaration, paid for pursuit of liberty. Francis Lewis's
"house was plundered by a party of British light horse. His extensive library and valuable papers of every description were wantonly destroyed. . . . [the British] thirsted for revenge upon a man, who had dared to affix his signature to a document, which proclaimed the independence of America. Unfortunately Mrs. Lewis fell into their power, and was retained a prisoner for several months had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months."
Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence 193-197 (New York: William Reed & Co., 1856); see also Benson J. Lossing, Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, (reprinting the original 1848 edition).

The price of freedom can be very high. Would I be willing to, knowing it would mean the loss of everything, the death of my dear wife, and a future populace who cared little about my sacrifice, have signed the Declaration? That's a question one can answer honestly only in the middle of the night, while lying awake and staring at the ceiling. The price of freedom can be very high -- as it was for virtually every signer of the Declaration, [see What Happened to the 56 Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence, available at]. Granted Francis Lewis and the other signers didn't know what fate awaited them, but surely they knew what could happen.

Memorial Day is the day we as Americans reflect on the sacrifices made by those who could and did answer the question of "what's the price of freedom?". It's a question worth revisiting every year.

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