Sunday, July 4, 2010
Independence Day: Freedom and Underwear
On July 4th, 1964, a fifty gun salute sounded from West Point up and down the Hudson Valley, reverently honoring the fifty states and reminding those within earshot of Independence Day for those states, our nation and its people. The assembled "New Cadets" in the class of 1968 held their rifles vertically in front of their chests for the entire salute, which included the reading of each states name before its cannon added the loud retort. I remember the pride in our nation, a sense of satisfaction that I was at West Point with an opportunity to serve it and the pain in my arms as the M-14 seemed to gain weight with each firing of the cannon. I felt good about my home state of Ohio, but pained over South Carolina and was wobbly by the time Vermont was honored. The honor, pride, opportunity and pain were a message about our future of service to the nation.
The Class of 1968 had connected on July 1st with a quick orientation to military and West Point traditions, vigorous and thorough haircuts, a review of marching, intense practice of standing at attention, parade rest and saluting. Then we were marched behind the West Point Band which introduced us to many of the parade songs we would hear for four years (including Onward Christian Soldiers, which I appreciated from my church and choir experiences) past our proud (surprised/ shocked) parents and many girlfriends (including Rebecca, my girlfriend- now my wife- who thought I looked like "an alien") to Trophy Point for a ceremony that ended with our swearing in to the United States Army.
"To support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic…" are words that imbedded in my brain on that day (See Oaths of Enlistment and Oaths of Office online for fascinating history of oaths back to the revolutionary war). The meaning of the oath has evolved over the years as I've experienced honor, pride, opportunity and pain across forty-six years of service (five on active duty in the Army) to our nation and its people. The surviving members of the class of 1968 continue to serve in many ways, but all remember that day at Trophy Point. We committed to serve the cause of freedom as we understand it, even to go to war for it, even to die for it, as twenty of our classmates did in Viet Nam. The well known class of 1915 took a similar oath to "support and defend…" resulting in a victory in World War II. President Eisenhower, a member of that class now known as "the class the stars fell on" because of all the generals, was one of those unique people who defended against both foreign enemies in war and domestic enemies as President.
General/President Eisenhower returned to West Point in 1965 for his 50th class reunion which resulted in amnesty to cadets for all punishments, endearing him to the classes of the late sixties almost as much as his comment in a documentary about him essentially saying, they cared too much (at West Point) about trivial things like folding underwear. We cadets in the movie theater at the time gave his comment a standing ovation. We didn't like folding underwear either. BUT, could folding underwear while intensely disliking it have made a difference in Ike's decisions leading up to D Day? Could he have been more able to interact with Congress about challenging legislative initiatives? Could following a series of legal orders like, "You must fold your underwear exactly this way for inspections of your room to be satisfactory," lead to an ability to follow legal orders with which one may have disagreement later in life/ career as a president or as a citizen? If we can fold underwear without complaining (after time for desensitization), can we do our duty without complaint when the stakes are bigger? Has West Point protected our freedoms better by repetition that enables leaders such as Eisenhower to understand when to act and when to refuse to act?
Somehow, a Kansas boy launched by West Point grew into a great general. One who had pride in his troops and his country and was honored with the opportunity, knowing the pain that it would bring to so many and the freedom it could bring to the world, to say to his troops on the dawn of the D Day invasion:
"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of
Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world."
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
"Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed - else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die."
— Dwight D. Eisenhower