Cory Remsburg and the American Spirit
The highlight of the State of the Union (SOTU) address was the story of Cory Remsburg, an Army ranger severely injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. At the end of the speech, the president held him up as a symbol of America's perseverance. To thunderous applause, Cory slowly rose to his feet and gave the crowd a thumbs-up. Not surprisingly, a perpetually divided Congress stood united for nearly two minutes in recognition of Cory's heroic recovery.
Nor is it surprising that in the aftermath of the speech that questions have been raised about the appropriateness of the president using Cory's story. For many on the left, that question alone is offensive -- reflecting at best a misunderstanding of Obama's intentions and at worst an automatic hostility to anything he does. But I understand why others might think it was inappropriate. It was a political speech. The president criticized Republicans on multiple occasions and touted his own policies for improving the country. He finished by exhorting Americans to unite behind his vision, while in the same breath asking us to follow Cory's example of perseverance.
Ultimately though, I don't think the president's political intentions matter. Americans needed to hear Cory's story because we desperately want to be inspired right now. For the past week, commentators have lamented the degeneration of the SOTU into a political spectacle no one cares about. But Americans are still looking for genuine signs that the "State of the Union" is strong. Our military veterans give us that. We look to their courage and sense of duty for proof that the indomitable American spirit still exists.
But when the military looks back on American society, we don't receive the same moral strength or sense of purpose from the country. We see an America that is ambivalent about its role in the world, and detached from the wars of the last decade. We see a crisis of confidence and a general pessimism about the future. Yet, the military community needs Americans to believe in their country so we can believe that our sacrifices have meaning.
With the recent fall of Fallujah to an al Qaeda affiliate and the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, there are growing concerns that the last twelve years of war were in vain. No one has been more deeply affected by this than the veterans that fought in those streets, losing friends and limbs to secure two theaters of war for their people. As veterans struggle to come to terms with what was it all for, neither the American people nor its leadership have stepped into the void to give that answer. In fact, the opposite is true -- as the questions grow, the country is looking to the military for reassurance that the sacrifices weren't meaningless.
Jake Tapper's interview with Marcus Luttrell provides a clear example of this. Well-meaning and genuinely concerned, Tapper said of the movie Lone Survivor: "One of the emotions I felt while watching the film is... just the hopelessness of the situation, how horrific it was and also just all that loss of life of these brave American men... It seemed senseless." Luttrell answers sharply, "We spend our whole lives training to defend this country and then we were sent over there by this country, so you're telling me that because we were over there doing what we were told by our country that it was senseless and they died for nothing?"
Not having an answer to that question is an abdication of responsibility by the American people. As a democracy, our soldiers go to war because of the decisions of the electorate, so the American people should reaffirm the worth of the struggle for our military -- not the other way around.
In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides shows the importance of this reciprocal relationship between the state and its soldiery through 'Pericles' Funeral Oration.' Every year, the Athenians would give a funeral at public expense to honor those who had fallen in war. Rather than praise the heroism of the soldiers in battle, Pericles begins by extolling the virtues of the Athenian state -- its democratic constitution, liberality in foreign policy, and cultivation of the arts. Only after praising Athens as a city does Pericles transition to the Athenian soldier.
In his most beautiful prose, Pericles explains that the sacrifices of the fallen heroes are given meaning by the virtue of the state. Athenian warriors never die in vain, because Athens is a noble city and the city asked them to go to war. The valor and honor of those who died comes not from their actions on the battlefield, but from the decision to answer their people's call to fight for the city. The challenge, he argues, is for the survivors to show the same resolve by recognizing the virtue of the state:
"You must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure could make them consent to deprive their country of their valor, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution they could offer."
Americans similarly understand that the heroism of our men and women in uniform comes from their decision to answer the nation's call to arms. The support that the military community has received over the last decade has been inspiring, as organizations like Operation Gratitude and other veteran service organizations have allowed citizens to express their appreciation for the troops. But that alone is not enough.
Americans have to believe that our Union is an honorable one. Though we may make mistakes, we are a force for good in the world because of our values, our system of government, and our people. We can debate the effectiveness of policies, and even oppose politically what our troops are doing overseas. But if we steadfastly hold that America is a moral and good nation, our troops can then believe that their sacrifices are honorable and that no serviceman dies in vain.
President Obama drew on Pericles when he challenged Americans to persevere like Cory Remsburg. The State of the Union address itself is an imitation of the Funeral Oration, a paean to the virtues and continued strength of the nation. It is therefore fitting that all presidents honor our heroes during the SOTU, regardless of the political content of the speech. For as Pericles argued then, it's the long unbroken line of heroes that made this nation; but it's the virtues of the nation that gives meaning to their valor and sacrifice.
Cory's challenge to our country is for America to remember what makes our nation great. If we want to honor him and the warriors he represents, let's start by believing again in the America experiment and our way of life. Let us live up to that challenge, so that as Pericles might say, "So lived this generation as became Americans."
(The opinions in this article are my own and do not reflect those of the United States Marine Corps or U.S. Government.)
Captain Jordan Blashek is an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps, serving two tours in the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan, respectively.