Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day Address 2016 (Hudsonville, Michigan)

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 this morning.
          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 than that.
          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 give us.
          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 in hospitals.
          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 past.
          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.