Have we 'earned' their sacrifice? Not yet.
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As we approached the Memorial Day weekend, scenes from a favorite war movie kept flashing, unbidden, through my mind.
It was "Saving Private Ryan," and though there are many powerful moments to recall, the one that was nearly haunting me was Capt. John Miller's death. Tom Hanks, America's Everyman, plays Miller, an English teacher called up to serve during World War II and now leading a special mission: To find and send home Private James Ryan, the "sole survivor" in a family whose other three sons have all been killed.
After two and a half hours of the most graphic, harrowing war sequences ever filmed, the climax we've hoped for and dreaded unfolds. Miller sits dying, shot through the chest just as he fulfilled his mission, and as Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon) kneels in front of him, Miller speaks his last words: "James, earn this ... Earn it."
The noble sacrifice of all our servicemen and women is distilled into this one tale. In World War II, though, they laid down their lives not to rescue a lone surviving son, but to save Europe from destruction, to save the Jewish people from annihilation, to save democracy from barbaric despotism. We still call it "The Good War."
Subsequent conflicts have seemed less noble and less clear-cut, but the value of the lives risked and lost is not determined by a war's popularity. The heartbreaking sacrifice remains the same. So does the challenge: "Earn this."
I don't know why the scene keeps replaying in my mind, but it's usually followed by this thought: Have we?
Have we earned the sacrifices our heroes have made?
Really? This is it -- this is the best we can do?
The movie scene should be inspiring, but this year -- on this Memorial Day -- it feels like a reproach.
Maybe it's just that the news is so demoralizing. Last week, the headlines and updates I kept catching chronicled the latest back-and-forth in the Orie sisters' drama, their apparent abuse of Pennsylvania taxpayers to preserve their positions of power and their bizarre, ongoing feud with the Zappala family.
Slightly below their story on the broadcast updates was former state Rep. Bill DeWeese's denied request to stay out of prison pending the appeal of his conviction for corruption. And these two stories are just the latest in a tawdry parade.
The bipartisan abuse of what was supposed to be a noble system is appalling. It is wearying.
Perhaps that's why we haven't summoned the collective will to reform it -- again. Yes, we've overhauled state government before, and now we wonder if those reforms led to the present mess. Like the regular wars that have to be fought to shore up and re-affirm democracy, we on the home front apparently need to rededicate ourselves to the less bloody undertaking of self-government.
But the news of widespread corruption keeps coming and we move no closer to reform. This is the best we can do?
Just as tiring is the constant flood of news on how we lesser mortals live. The teen shootings, brawls in schools and malls, jilted lovers killing their rivals, township clerks embezzling millions, priests enabling child-abusing peers -- even the littering and graffiti that mar my neighborhood daily -- all are evidence of our heedlessness.
This is what we do with our blood-bought liberty? People died so we can live like this?
It is human nature, of course. We cannot live every moment in goodness and mindfulness, but the task is even harder when so many of us have no connection to those who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.
It was different during "The Good War." Millions of Americans served in the armed forces; virtually no family went untouched. The sacrifice was shared, and so it was widely remembered and honored. That's part of why we call those who fought that war "The Greatest Generation."
I'll never forget seeing "Saving Private Ryan" when it opened. The audience was sparse at the afternoon showing, but not far from me sat a middle-aged couple with a wizened, gray-haired man. By habit, I sat through all the credits, and when I left the elderly man was still weeping, his grown children crying, too.
I like to think that they -- both father and children -- live better lives than they might have otherwise, because they were aware of its cost.
That was almost 15 years ago. That man, like so many of his peers, may have passed on. Today's heroes are volunteer professionals. I don't know any of them myself. Do you?
If we were mindful of the price they and our ancestors have paid, we would live differently. To deserve their sacrifice, we need to ponder it -- more than once a year.
First Published May 28, 2012 12:00 am