Memorial Day

Yesterday was Memorial Day and that has Wally thinking about today.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Wally's commentary.]

Yesterday was Memorial Day. With ceremonies and speeches, with long silences and with toasts we remembered. We remembered our absent friends, for me, especially, Sario and Mike and Big Jim.

We remembered husbands and uncles, fathers and friends and sons and daughters. We reflected on them and on the sacrifice they made for our freedom.

Today is the day after Memorial Day and so in this Postcard from the Digital Age we'll reflect on how well we, the living, measure up to their example.

Let me start in a different and distant place. In AD 9, Quintilius Varus, the Roman governor in what is now Germany roused his legions to put down what he believed was a small rebellion. It was not.

The German Arminius routed the Roman legions under Varus. Soon the Romans had all fled back home, leaving Germany free of Roman rule.

The Roman historian, Cassius Dio, tells us that the Emperor Augustus was worried about the Germans, and wanted to raise an army to fight them. But he couldn't find any Roman youth willing and fit for military service.

It had not always been so. In the days of the Roman Republic military service was a great honor. Then life became comfortable. Armies became professional. And it became easier and easier to for a Roman citizen to assume that he could pay someone else to defend Rome.

The price of freedom has always been paid in blood. During World War II, millions of men and women put down their personal lives and set off to war and to support the war. Almost half a million of them died. Today, things are different.

In 1954, there were 3.3 million Americans on active duty in the military. By 1980, the number was two million and by 2002 it had dropped to 1.4 million. As we reduced our military forces we had to find ways to get the military job done with less people.

We used technology. More and more we've come to depend on technology in the sky and on the ground to multiply the power and reach of our ever-smaller forces. That has worked to some extent. New technology was one of the reasons that our casualty rates in the Gulf Wars were a fraction of what they had been in Viet Nam or World War II.

But technology, alone, can never be enough. War is ultimately a ground acquisition game. If you think you can smart-bomb your enemy into submission, you're wrong. They won't give up, they'll just dig deeper holes. And eventually some 19 year old will have to strap on his gear and go hole to hole, or house to house.

The latest idea is to outsource. That's another name for hiring mercenaries, except now they're mercenary companies instead of individual soldiers.

Sometimes outsourcing makes sense. It makes sense to use civilians to do routine tasks that free up soldiers to fight and train. Today, though, we have what are described as "civilian contractors" escorting military convoys and conducting intelligence interrogations. But the more important and exclusively military the function, the less sense it makes to outsource it.

Civilian contractors aren't part of the military chain of command. They don't have to obey military orders and they're not subject to military discipline. More important, they don't have the unit loyalty that well-trained and well-led soldiers have.

That's because when the bullets start to fly you don't fight for freedom or national policy. When Marine Corporal Jason Dunham dove on a hand grenade in Iraq, he didn't do it for some abstract principle. He did it to save his buddies.

You can't buy that kind of loyalty or courage or commitment. You can't program it in. It blossoms from the spirit of patriotism and willingness to sacrifice, nurtured by loyalty and leadership. If we want to remain free, we will have to re-discover those things.