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Friday, November 11, 2005 | The radio voices of Winston Churchill and FDR still resonate in my head, more than 60 years after they first entered my young ears during World War II. Just from the sound of their voices I recognized that they were great and important men during a bad time.
If only we could hear the actual voice of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps we could understand even better the greatness of this man. Even so, his Gettysburg Address, delivered 143 years ago this month, remains powerful for all ages. Many historians regard this as the greatest American wartime speech ever made.
Gettysburg is the battlefield to which Lincoln came on Nov. 19, 1863, to dedicate a portion as a cemetery for the troops killed there. It was a sacred moment in American history. Two men spoke. Edward Everett, one of the greatest orators of the age, a former U.S. senator and former president of Harvard College, spoke for more than two hours. We still have his written speech. Then Lincoln spoke – for a mere two minutes. His speech was little noted at that moment. It is, however, long remembered. Everett, recognizing the greatness of Lincoln’s speech, wrote him the next day, praising the speech, saying, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
Why were these two minutes so powerful? Because Lincoln filled them with the language of the sacred to describe the battlefield graveyard, and because Lincoln was the kind of man he was: indomitable, yet humble; transcendently wise, yet earthy. The terrible battle carnage of Gettysburg tore at his soul. He grieved deeply over these deaths, and was compelled to attend the burial rites. He understood the noble cause for which these men died: to test “whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated” … “to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure.
He had a vision: “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.”
Lincoln was a humble and spiritual man. There was no puffery or strutting before the troops, no costumes or medals. No great entourage, pomposity or imperial pageantry.
Presidents have stopped going to Gettysburg now. They no longer go to funerals of our fallen soldiers. Gary North averred, “When the rhetoric of the sacred no longer extends to military funerals, the visible hand of war is getting close to the end of its popularity. When a military graveyard is no longer believed by the public to be hallowed by the latest conflict, the case for war has weakened.”
Many Americans realized early on that this sacred element has been missing from this present war. Great and sacred words such as Lincoln’s will not be heard, nor any new battlefield dedicated, this Veterans’ Day.
We must show respect, nevertheless. The Veterans for Peace of San Diego County will pay honor today, Veterans’ Day, to the 2,040-plus troops who have been killed in this war. Until some piece of sacred ground is dedicated to them, join the vets in the temporary dedication of a part of Moonlight Beach to their honor. The Arlington West ceremony in Encinitas starts at 4:00 p.m.
Joe Howard Crews retired to Fallbrook in 1993, after a long career with Pan Am World Airways. He is active in the North County Coalition for Peace and Justice.