When we witness the terrible human cost of war, we question the purpose of war.
When we see the deep, painful void that the deaths of our fallen servicemembers leave behind in our hearts and in the hearts of their families, are we not justified in asking, “Are the goals of this war worth the cost?” In the wake of our recent casualties is it disloyal to question the necessity of such a profound sacrifice?
No, asking such questions are not wrong or disloyal, for love inspired such questions. Every thinking and feeling person will have those questions. Therefore, every caring servicemember will struggle with those two great conflicting realities: the incalculable value of the individual servicemember’s life and the sacrifice of that life to achieve the enduring military and global objective.
President Abraham Lincoln grappled with those same conflicting realities when faced with the staggering losses at the Battle of Gettysburg. In three days of fighting America suffered 51,000 casualties—in a single battle! Humbled, Lincoln took to offer some appropriate remarks at the dedication of that battlefield as a national cemetery. He stood shocked and horrified over the loss of so many. However, Lincoln also understood that the tragedy of so many dead would be magnified if the nation allowed those who gave the last full measure of devotion to the great cause of freedom to die in vain.
“It is for us the living,” Lincoln declared, “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they … have thus far so nobly advanced. … that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In that speech, known universally as the Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln gave voice to the silent dead and pleaded with the nation not to break faith with those now powerless to carry on the fight to its conclusion. He so eloquently reconciled the immeasurable value of one life and the necessity of its sacrifice to give the nation “a new birth of Freedom.”
In Flanders Fields
LTC John McCrae grappled with those same conflicting realities during the First World War. And who could be better qualified? LTC McCrae cared deeply for soldiers and understood their value as human beings. As a doctor, he devoted his life both as a civilian and as a soldier in the Canadian Army to caring for others. But he also lived as a devoted soldier. He served first as an enlisted man, then as Artillery Officer, and finally as an Army doctor. He was committed to the military and its values and understood the necessity of human sacrifice in war.
This caring Army doctor insisted on living in a tent like other soldiers, rather than in the more comfortable officer’s quarters. He struggled to reconcile those same two conflicting realities—the immense value of one life and the need for its sacrifice in the cause of freedom.
Voice to the Dead
It was the spring of 1915 and little red flowers called poppies had bloomed. LTC McCrae stood upon the plain near Ypres, Belgium known as Flanders Field. There he surveyed the heart-rending ravages of war. Thousands upon thousands of wooden crosses marked the graves of fallen men. In one of the most acclaimed poems of all time, LTC McCrae gave voice to the dead who seemed to call from their graves to their fellow soldiers: “No, we are not faceless pawns in a mere high-stake chess game. We once loved and were loved, tasted the joys of life, felt the dawn, and saw the sunset’s glow. But we willingly gave our lives to a noble cause that we are now powerless to see to its conclusion. Do not break faith with us, but carry on the fight to our foe.” As a result of that inspiration, he wrote these words:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Words to us
If our fallen soldiers had a voice among us, wouldn’t his cry be theirs? Wouldn’t their appeal be thus,
“Yes, my life was dear to me. Yes, I, along with you, treasured those sweet moments with my spouse and children and loved ones. I dreamed of the day I would return safely into their arms. But I willingly devoted myself to my branch, its values, and to a cause greater than myself. I accepted the risks, endured the hardships, and poured out my life for my country and for the cause of freedom in a war-torn land.
“But do not break faith with us who die. We are powerless to see that cause to its conclusion. With failing hands we pass the torch to you. You are our hands and our voice, so take up our quarrel with the foe. Hold high the torch and see our cause of freedom, for which we have traded our lives, to its ultimate victory. Then we shall rest knowing our death was not in vain.”
My fellow servicemembers in the service of the greatest nation on earth, do not doubt the worthiness of your profession and calling. It is written of Jesus Christ Himself, “in righteousness He judges and wages war” (Revelation 19:11). May God help us to hear His call to establish His justice among men and nations and to see His just cause to its ultimate success.
Almighty and merciful Father, please bless our Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines deployed to freedom’s frontier and in harm’s way. Grant them supreme success in their missions, protect them from all harm—at home and abroad, and return them safely into the arms of their families and loved ones. And, please dear God, help America to support them—by their prayers, their gratitude, and their voice. Amen.