Sunday, November 14, 2004

Intellectual Activism: Let us never to fail to honor the heroic again

Here's this week's GMU Broadside Column:

Last Thursday was Veterans Day, a holiday dedicated to honoring the valor of those American men and woman who defended the freedoms of the nation though their service in the armed forces. Not unlike Thanksgiving Day, Veterans Day also aims to give thanks, but unlike Thanksgiving Day, which is celebrated though feasts and family get-togethers, Veterans Day is supposed to be celebrated though solemn events that give us pause to commemorate the contributions of our veterans.

So why then did the George Mason University, one of our great civic institutions, offer no such commemoration to mark Veterans Day last week? Nowhere on our campus was any effort made to reflect upon the role of our nation’s military veterans. No great speech or tribute was made, no heroics were honored and no losses reflected upon. It was as if the holiday didn’t even exist.

Yet this university celebrates all sorts of groups and occasions. The history of almost every ethnic minority is recalled in one way or another on campus. One university office is dedicated to “diversity programs” while another office is dedicated to “multicultural research and resource.” Last spring, the entire Johnson Center was decorated from head to toe with flags to celebrate Mason’s international cultures. There are festivities to mark almost every identity that one could imagine.

So again, why then the omission of this one uniquely American holiday? Are we veterans not important? (I say “we” because I am one, courtesy of my five years with the marines). Is it because we were part of a brotherhood of arms that is uncomfortable to contemplate in these controversial times?

The truth is we veterans are as much a part of the George Mason community as any other group. Our military experience makes us unique; we are part of a fraternity not of race or of birth but of choice; we chose to affirm our freedom by serving in the nation’s armed forces. That commitment took us to the ends of the earth, separating us from families and loved ones and testing us in ways unimaginable to most: from tedium, to despair, to the elation many of us feel from being part of hard-won achievement.

I personally know men on campus who have endured the kind of pain only the battlefield can offer; men who, quoting a poet “march[ed] in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown,” yet kept their grace and benevolence even in the face of it all. These are men whose courage brought them honors when they wore the uniform, but who here, in our community, receive little credit and no special mention. Universities are sacred places; because of their role in discovering and teaching truth, they are a place where the best within us is reflected. Yet if last week was any indication, the best in our veterans has become hardly worth mentioning.

This failure to properly commemorate our heroes is wrong. The fact is that every discipline and every department on our campus ought to mark Veterans Day. The history department could recall those Mason students who performed heroically in battle. The information technology department could recall the role computer engineers played developing the computers that broke the enemy’s secret codes. The women’s studies center could recall the role women played in the fight for freedom. The philosophy department could reflect on the power of a free and independent people to defeat every tyranny that would seek to enslave them. This list is endless; in the fight for freedom, practitioners of every art and every science have played a role.

Yet that George Mason forgets the role our veterans played in securing the freedoms that make our university and other places of free thought possible is unforgivable; it says we place no value in the struggle it took to bring liberty our people and the effort it takes to preserve it. We should be ashamed of ourselves for this oversight.

I propose that George Mason never let another Veterans Day go unmarked again. I propose that a parcel of land on campus be set aside and a monument be constructed on it to pay tribute to Mason’s military veterans and those Mason alumni who have died in the service of the nation. This memorial should be conspicuous and prominent; it should be a place of awe, reverence and respect that personifies the virtues we seek to honor in our veterans.

On Veterans Day, this monument should be a site of celebration. And perhaps most importantly, this monument should be a palace where a future generation of veterans will remember and draw inspiration in the hour of their testing.

We should do this. I can forgive an error of omission in our failing to properly observe this last Veterans Day. I can not forgive an error of commission that says “no” to a call for us never to fail to honor the heroic again.

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