So many times, the United States has asked its men and women in uniform to march “into the valley of death.” This weekend, we honor those who answered that call.
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” has been an exemplar of art that captures the reality of war since Tennyson wrote it in 1854. The poem perfectly encapsulates both the heroism and the folly of war.
Tennyson, then England’s poet laureate, wrote the poem soon after reading accounts of a charge of British light cavalry against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War. The poem speaks of lasting glory and the need to “honor the charge they made.” But it also states that “someone had blundered,” and vividly recounts the cannon volley surrounding the 600 cavalrymen as they rode “into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell.”
Warfare has changed immeasurably since the 19th century. We no longer do battle with men on horses, bearing swords and muskets.
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And the warriors have changed. The modern soldier is better trained, better educated, more proficient with a larger variety of sophisticated weapons and other devices carried into battle. And today’s soldier is backed up by air power and high-tech support that were unimaginable just a few decades ago, much less in 1854.
Yet, despite the changes, all who choose life in the military are subject to the same demanding dictum as the ill-fated Light Brigade: “Theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do and die.”
Those lines, the most celebrated in the poem, succinctly define the duty of our service men and women. When ordered, they march into the valley of death without question or hesitation.
That is especially pertinent now as presidential contenders are being asked whether they think the Iraq War was worth fighting. A majority of Americans, according to polls, have concluded that the war was a mistake.
But while a general consensus exists that World War II was “the good war,” there is none of the same certainty about many other American conflicts. Should we have committed nearly two decades and tens of thousands of American lives to the war in Vietnam?
We might have been right to pursue Osama bin Laden into the mountains of Afghanistan but were we justified in spending another 10 years there, fighting the Taliban?
The wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq could not be construed as defending the homeland or even as a clearcut battle of good vs. evil. Yet they were fought in the name of national interests. Our elected leaders sent young men and women to die for dubious reasons.
And they went, without question, as duty demanded. They fought with the same courage, devotion and sense of purpose as those who defeated the Nazis in World War II.
Today we honor those who died because they answered when their country called. Their devotion to duty, to country, to honor and to each other compelled them. This weekend, we honor the fallen in the same unstinting, unquestioning manner in which they stepped up to serve.
While some wars should not have been fought, we never should doubt that, without the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, our sacred values would have been in jeopardy, our way of life threatened, our security diminished. As Tennyson asks in the final stanza of his poem: “When can their glory fade?”