Good morning Mayor Northrop, City
Commissioners, Reverend Bosscher, distinguished guests, fellow veterans, fellow
American citizens, ladies and gentlemen. It is a privilege to be here
It is expected that a professor of philosophy should start any reflection with
a quotation from a philosopher. And, I will not disappoint. I think that
it is even more properly so during remarks about Memorial Day. However, I
will disappoint you on the fact that my beard has nothing to do with the
stereotypical philosophy professor type but with the fact that I’m preparing
for a role in a play whose character simply requires a beard; nothing deeper
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher of language and logic famously
once said, “Whereof one cannot speak,
thereof one must be silent.” In other words, “We shall not speak of
that of which we know nothing or can be even expressed.”
There are certain moments and experiences in life, as we all know, for which
sometimes there are no words. And yet, we do have a need and desire to
communicate to others those experiences and the sentiments or insights they
In the summer of 1968, as a youngster, the Vietnam War was something that
happened in the news, that is, until an older cousin of mine was drafted and
sent to Vietnam. Doing as most kids do during summers—the busy task of goofing
around with my cousin’s younger brother of my same age—our nothingness was
suddenly and shockingly interrupted by the delivery to his house of a telegram.
Telegrams were usually a good thing in our families. They usually meant that a
relative from the other side of the island or from “the States” was suddenly
coming to visit, but not this telegram. This telegram caused inconsolable
tears. This telegram was not delivered by the Western Union man in one
its vans, but by the heavy, paused and slow cadence of a U.S. Army Sergeant in
an ominous and official looking vehicle.
As we went inside the house hearing my aunt crying, we could see the instrument
of the bad news in her hands, it said, “It is with great regret that the
Secretary of the Army informs that since (a date was given) your son SPC
Vladimiro Sierra has been Missing in Action in the Republic of Vietnam”; it
continued, “As soon as further news about his status are confirmed all efforts
will be made to communicate them to you.”
Before evening came, my father, other uncles and relatives, flooded my cousin’s
house. The silence among the men—my father, my cousins’ father, and other
uncles—was deafening and eloquent at the same time. Veterans of WWII and
the Korean War as they were, they knew what “missing in action” meant. It was
official language, a government euphemism to convey a possible permanent lack
of closure because not enough of a soldier was found to truly determine whether
he had been killed in action or not.
I realized years later that that kind of silence was probably what Wittgenstein
was referring to with his famous dictum.
Three days later, another telegram came. This time, the brisk walk of the same
Sergeant was less foreboding but still ominous. “The Secretary of the Army wishes
to inform you that the status of your son SPC Vladimiro Sierra has been
determined as Wounded in Action.” The Sergeant went quickly to further
inform that my cousin had been moved to a hospital in Tokyo, Japan, and that
his full recovery was expected. My aunt’s ears of dread were transformed
into tears of relief.
My cousin had been in a sandbag-surrounded-foxhole with five other soldiers
when an enemy mortar landed dead center in the middle of them. Three were
killed instantly, while my cousin and a radio operator were badly
wounded. Being next to the radio operator, it was the radio itself that
received most of the shrapnel, but still wounding my cousin severely enough to
almost have lost an eye, the loss of a leg and placing him nearly three months
Somewhere else in the U.S., three mothers, three fathers, three families did
not get that second telegram.
Why do we memorialize? Why do we remember? Why MUST we remember?
Much is being made in the last few years of a trend in the field of political
history in the form of what is called “historic memory” studies. In
reality, it is selective memory, a new euphemism for selective historical
revisionism. It is a trend, especially within a population in the
academic world that actually has no generational or institutional memory of
their own. But it is also a trend that often trickles down from the ivory
tower to our daily political life.
In the name of remembering forgotten victims of past atrocities, in reality
this effort seeks to revive and judge the dead through a sort of historical
grave digging. It seeks to pass judgment, to reassign culpability from the
perspective of the unknown, on those who either can no longer speak for themselves
or whose generation had, ironically, already achieved reconciliation with the
It is rather quite a curious trend that seeks to rearrange indisputable facts
of history by reassigning the roles of victims to that of perpetrators, and the
role of perpetrators to that of victims. And this is done not through the
lenses of disciplined historical investigation but through the lenses of
contemporary political goals. The trend would be disturbing enough in the
academic setting, but it is certainly more so when we see it expressed in the
voice and actions of major political figures.
That is why we need—we must—now, more than ever, to remember.
The dead make no apologies for their decisions. Nor do they want us or expect
from us to apologize for them. They made their peace. And spoke loud enough
with their actions of the kind of courage that most of us will never experience
or would have to exercise. We may never know what were their last thoughts, their last moments of agony, the memories that may have gone through
their minds, or the heavy sense of loss as to what could have been of their
lives; if they even had enough time for those thoughts.
They speak to us today through their silence, yet loudly, through the fruits
they left behind: the most prosperous, most generous country in history, that,
although imperfect as it may be as all human projects are, it is still perfect
in the hope that has given to the millions world over that still flock to its
shores. Their descendants have not have to build walls to keep their fellow
citizens from leaving the country, but in any case to manage the overwhelming
numbers of people from every race, creed and nationality who still see this
country as the place where they and their descendants can fully flourished as
human beings. Even America’s former defeated enemies were transformed into
prosperous countries thanks to America’s magnanimity in victory. Those who wish
to transform this country into other than the land of that hope have never
known what is like to come to this country from lands of hopelessness, and
perhaps they should heed Wittgenstein’s advice.
Those who, for personal or political agendas, dishonor the memory of those who
cannot speak for themselves, not only do not speak for them but also dishonor
themselves. Those are their
fruits. On the other hand, the
fruits of those who paid for freedom with their ultimate sacrifice are here
for us to enjoy today. Even for those who dishonor them.
Why do we memorialize them today? Because we are grateful and because we
need heroes. Throughout history heroes represent the best virtues, the best
qualities in us. They are our north.
And for those reasons we memorialize today those that make us proud to be
Americans. And I am proud to be an American, and because of them I
decided to become an American. I look down at my feet, and my feet are
exactly where I want them to be.
There is an old Native American saying that says, “What you do speaks so loud,
I cannot hear what you say.” Native American wisdom was definitely ahead
of Wittgenstein. It reminds me of another saying that says, “And ye shall
know them by their fruits.”
Perhaps, when it comes to truly understand or explain to other generations the
depth of the meaning of what it means to “have paid the ultimate sacrifice”, we
should follow Wittgenstein’s advice, “Whereof
one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” And yet, we can and
must remember. And we shall do that as long as the United States of America is
a free nation, and as long as we observe Memorial Day, because it is the
freedom that we enjoy this day that is the best speech, that those who paid
with their sacrifice deliver to us today, precisely about that of which we, the
living, cannot speak.
Thank you very much.