American Legion Leadership Conference Keynote

As I gathered my thoughts for this talk tonight, I reflected on the events of the twentieth century and how they have brought us to this day.

The century just past was one of almost continuous strife for our nation. Wars, great and small, conflicts, police actions, tense crises and terrorist threats. It was a difficult hundred years. Early in the century we were drawn into World War I, "The War to End All Wars," they called it at the time. At the end of that war, when the armistice was declared, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we were sure that we had secured peace for all time, and so declared that day a national holiday... Armistice Day. Not so many years later, it became clear that we were not yet done with wars. It was equally clear that we owed a great debt to the brave young men and women who fought and sacrificed defending our nation. Armistice Day became Veterans Day, and our nation had a holiday to mark the courage and selflessness of those who have gone in harm's way to serve their nation.

Wars and conflicts continue. Just weeks ago the tragic events surrounding the USS Cole served to remind us of the sacrifices made by our military all the time, all over the world. This ship, engaged in routine operations, was attacked by terrorists without warning or provocation. Seventeen sailors were killed and 39 were injured in this senseless attack. The survivors worked heroically for days to save the ship from sinking.

Those who have ever served on the front line of freedom know that such a tragedy, though sad and infuriating, is one of the many day-to-day risks accepted by all military people in service to their country.

During wartime, such sacrifices are well-known. We speak often of terrible battles won by courageous titans. Iwo Jima; Normandy; Inchon; Khe Sahn. They fought desperate battles, enduring impossible conditions. The cold of the Chosin Reservoir; the heat of desert and jungle; the isolation of Pacific islands; the monsoons of Vietnam. Fatigue, fear, loneliness and hopelessness have worn on our veterans. But they have always endured, overcome and been victorious.

These dramatic wartime sacrifices are not the only ones made by our defenders. Day in and day out, in war and in peace, the men and women of our armed forces have made other, more easily overlooked sacrifices to serve our nation.

They risked hazardous training to prepare for hazardous duty. They worked long hours and endured lengthy family separations. They adopted a Spartan lifestyle that few others would accept at any price, while receiving lower pay than most would accept for any work.

They did not expect personal gain, and they certainly did not love war.

Often, this has been done in the absence of great public acclaim or notice. They have done these things because they believed it was the right thing to do. They did not expect personal gain, and they certainly did not love war.

General Colin Powell wrote of the American GI recently for Time Magazine. He said, "For more than 200 years, they answered the call to fight the nation's battles. They never went forth as mercenaries on the road to conquest. They went forth as reluctant warriors, as citizen soldiers."

He went on to say, "In this century hundreds of thousands of GIs died to bring to the beginning of the 21st Century, the victory of democracy as the ascendant political system on the face of the earth."

"...the victory of Democracy..." Imagine that. We won the Cold War. In fact, we won the Twentieth Century.

What does it mean that we won the Cold War?

We have not enslaved the vanquished to serve our needs.

We have no more territory than we did at its beginning... in fact, we have a little less, since we have granted independence to some former territories.

We have no treasure taken from those we've conquered. We have less, since we have used much of our own treasure to assist our former enemies to rebuild. What, then, did we gain by winning the Twentieth Century? We established Democracy as the "ascendant political system on the face of the earth." Our efforts made the world a better place. In the final analysis, we Americans fought and died, and suffered and sacrificed, not for ourselves, but for all mankind. We sacrificed not for conquest, or booty or power. We sacrificed for an Idea. When we join the military, we swear allegiance to one thing only... not our borders or our leaders. We swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. A piece of paper. An Idea.

What is it about this Constitution that is so powerful? Why are we willing to fight and die for it?

It is the foundation for our entire system of government, a system unique in the world unlike any other. I would remind you that while many countries are older, no other Democracy has existed as long.

We allow people to pursue their dreams, and when the dreams succeed, we reward them.

However, the Constitution is much more than a guidebook to run the government. That wouldn't inspire much passion. The Constitution spells out the rights of every individual citizen. Freedom of speech, free press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, right to keep and bear arms, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, trial by jury, and more. Taken together, the meaning of the Constitution for the individual is opportunity, the chance to follow whatever calling you have, without unreasonable hindrance from the government. Tom Clancy, in his most recent book, says, "In my country, all things are possible... We allow people to pursue their dreams, and when the dreams succeed, we reward them. Others see that happen and chase after their own dreams."

We enable our citizens to be their best and in return, the country benefits from the exertions of its citizens striving for ever-higher goals and achieving them.

Opportunity is the American Dream.

American fighting men and women have dreamed the dream and have fought to protect it. And as General Powell says, they have also been willing to fight to obtain its benefits for others. He says, "The GIs were willing to travel far away and give their lives, if necessary, to secure the rights and freedoms of others... And the GIs wanted nothing more than to get the job done and then return home safely." Those themes describe the attitude of America's defenders since 1775: selfless sacrifice to do the job, pride in their contribution to the nation they love, and desire to get home when the job is done.

After the bombing of the USS Cole, the Command Master Chief of the ship, James Parlier, wrote this to the families of the crew: "Every Sailor here, believe me, has got you in their minds, but they know we have got to get the ship home." Then he wrote, "We're proud to be serving for you and thank you for the sacrifices you've made for us."

Those young men and women serving out there on the frontiers of freedom today can stand proudly, shoulder to shoulder with their brothers and sisters, fathers and grandfathers, who went before them and set the standard. God has blessed America. And among his greatest blessings, now as in the past, are the selfless and courageous defenders of our Republic.

Keep dreaming the dream, and say a prayer for the defenders of the dream.