America’s military is unique. It fights to protect the borders of a country established by a set of ideas…the most radical set of ideas in man’s history. America is the first and only country founded explicitly and philosophically on the principle that an individual’s life is his to live, by unalienable right. America is the first and only country founded on the explicit principle that the government exists as servant for and by permission of the people, with the solemn duty to protect those rights; or, as Ronald Reagan put it in his first inaugural address:
As established in the Declaration of Independence, individual rights come before government—rights being understood as guarantees to freedom of action to pursue personal advancement, not automatic claims on economic rewards that others must be forced to provide. Then, as stated in the document that initiated the United States of America as a politically autonomous entity, the Declaration states, "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." That is America. Even the British Empire from which America won independence, then the freest society the world had ever known, was based on the premise that "rights" are privileges granted by the Crown. Englishmen were subjects, not truly free.
Sadly, the knowledge of what this country stands for is steadily slipping away…and along with it, our rights. Fortunately, we’re still free to speak out. So the best way to honor the military fighter who died in the line of duty, for those of us who still retain that knowledge, is to remind our fellow Americans in any small way that we can about America’s unique, noble, and radical Founding ideals.
We can still prevent “the other way around”. But we must rediscover the knowledge of, and think about, what it means to be an American. So, let us reflect on what really made this country possible.
This Memorial Day weekend, we will hear a lot about the “sacrifices” made by those who served and died defending America.
It is said that this nation, our freedom, and our way of life, are a gift bestowed upon us by the grace of the “sacrifices” of the Founding Fathers and the fighters of America’s wars from the Revolutionary War on. A gift? Yes. But, was it a sacrificial gift? Is it even possible that so magnificent an achievement – the United States of America – could be the product of sacrifice? As the closing words of this country’s Founding philosophical document – the Declaration of Independence – attest, the Founding Fathers risked everything to make their ideals a reality:
And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
Some point to those words, and bestow on the signatories of that document the “honor” of having sacrificed for us, the "future generations." Nothing can be further from the truth. Sacrifice--properly understood--is the giving up, rather than the achievement, of values. America was achieved.
What is any human being’s highest attribute and value? It is his mind and his independent judgment. To use one’s mind – to think – is an exclusively personal, individualistic, self-motivated, self-chosen, selfish effort. All else in a person's life is a consequence of the use, or lack of use, of his mind – for better or for worse. One’s convictions about what one believes is right, one’s passionate concern for ideas, is the product of the independent use of one’s mind. The man who places nothing above the judgment of his own mind, even at the risk of his own physical well-being, is not engaging in self-sacrifice. To fight for one’s own fundamental beliefs is the noblest, most egoistic endeavor one can strive for. Integrity is not selfless. It is not sacrificial.
The Founders were thinkers and fighters. They were egoists, in the noblest sense, which is the only valid sense. They believed in a world, not as it was, but as it could be and should be. They took action – pledging their “sacred honor” at great risk to their personal wealth and physical well-being – to that end. They would accept no substitute. They would take no middle road. They would not compromise. They would succeed or perish.
Such was the extraordinary character of the Founders of this nation.
To call the achievement of the Founders a sacrifice is to say that they did not deem the ideals set forth in the Declaration as worthy of their fighting for; that the idea that the individual’s life belongs to him and not to any collective and not to any ruler was less of a value to them than what they pledged in defense of it; that they did what they did anyway without personal conviction or passion; that the Declaration of Independence is a fraud. To say that America was born out of sacrifice is a grave injustice and, in fact, a logical impossibility.
World history produced a steady parade of human sacrifices, and the overwhelming result was a steady stream of blood, tears,and tyranny. The Founders stood up not merely to the British Crown, but to the whole brutal sacrificial history of mankind to turn the most radical set of political ideas ever conceived into history’s greatest nation. It is no accident that the United States of America was born at the apex of the philosophical movement that introduced the concept of the Rights of Man to his own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, the Enlightenment.
Only the most extraordinary men of the most ferocious personal strength and courage could have so uncompromisingly upheld, against overwhelming odds and hostility and personal risk, so passionate a belief in their own independently held convictions so as to have established the American Founding. The American Revolution was history’s brightest demonstration of the rationally selfish pursuit of a noble goal by any group of people, ever. It was a monumental human testament to the dedication these men had to their cause – the refusal to live any longer under any social condition except full, genuine freedom, and to "pledge eternal hostility against every form of tyranny."
The highest tribute I can pay to those Americans who died in the line of military duty, on this Memorial Day, is not that they selflessly sacrificed for their country. Self-sacrifice is not a virtue in my value system. It is an insult, because that would mean that their country and what it stands for was irrelevant to them; that they had no personal, selfish interest in it; that they were not passionate about their service; that they were indifferent toward America's enemies; that it made no difference to them whether they returned to live in freedom or to live in slavery.
This, of course, is not the case. That is not Why a Free Man Fights.
Freedom is thoroughly egoistic, because it leaves all individuals free to pursue their own goals, values, and happiness—by inalienable right and with the full protection of his government. It follows that to fight for a free nation is thoroughly egoistic. If American soldiers fight for their freedom, then the highest tribute I can pay to those who perished in that cause is to say that they were cut from the mold of the Founding Fathers; that they did not set out to die for their country but rather that they set out to fight, at great personal risk, for the only values under which they desired to live—that radical set of ideals that is the United States of America.
A military, of course, is not the first line of defense for freedom, nor an unmitigated good. As stated at the outset, militaries fight to protect borders—more often than not borders of unfree countries. Not so America’s military, which does protect a free nation’s borders. America has not faced an existential threat to its sovereignty in 30 years, and has not fought a war to protect its borders since the 1940s. Today, thankfully, America is militarily untouchable. The technological supremacy of our military power could instantly crush any power around the world that dared pose a threat to our borders.
Yet today, nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Communist menace—the last true existential threat to America—we are less free than we were then, thanks to the growth of the regulatory welfare state. Our freedom, once protected by our Constitution, has actually been eroding for a century--and now faces it's greatest-ever internal threat, the rise of the reactionary Democratic Socialism, the so-called "New Socialists."
The fight for freedom based on individual rights is fundamentally a philosophical fight. Today, America’s military might is greater than ever before, and yet freedom is at its lowest ebb since the end of the Civil War. If America continues losing the knowledge of what freedom is, where it comes from, and why we deserve it as an inalienable right, all of that incredible military power won’t save us. If We the People, each as sovereign individuals—we who have allowed a regulatory welfare state to grow into the monstrosity it has become—want to honor the military that protects us from foreign enemies, we must come to grips with this simple, observable fact: The primary threat to Americans’ freedom today is not external—any foreign power that threatens America as a sovereign nation will be crushed like a bug in short order. The primary threat to America today is internal, in the form of the ideas of collectivism, statism and democratic socialism eroding the ideals of individualism, capitalism, and constitutional republicanism. It is not enough to put some number of years into a military career. It is not enough to pay taxes to support the military. We must fight with words and pen for our freedom every day.
This is not to diminish the role of the U.S. military; only to put it in proper perspective. We can’t win the internal philosophical battle against the enemies of freedom without keeping the external enemies of freedom at bay. We need our military, and it is fitting that we recognize American soldiers lost in battle. It is fitting not just because of the importance of the military, but as a reminder that “war is hell”; that the cost of war to actual living human beings is horrendous; and that Americans should never be pushed into battle for altruistic causes or with rules of engagement that hamper their ability to protect themselves and win as quickly as possible, as has too often been the case over the past century (think “making the world safe for democracy,” or the “domino theory,” or the “forward strategy for freedom”). If we deployed our military more to actually defend our borders and less as the world’s policeman and do-gooder, we’d have fewer dead soldiers to memorialize.
With the full context understood, in memoriam of those who perished fighting in defense of a nation founded on and defined by individual freedom, and to all of America’s service men and women past and present:
Kudos for your service in defense of a nation based on American ideals, for your desire to live in freedom, and for your fierce determination to—I hope—accept no substitute. It’s only fitting to recognize the service of persons who lost their lives in the defense of the values that they, and all true Americans’, hold in common.
Happy Memorial Day! Enjoy it. Live it. That’s the best way to memorialize them.
On This Veterans Day, Remember the Productive Americans Who Support the Greatest Military in History
The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty – Timothy Sandefur
A New Textbook of Americanism—edited by Jonathan Hoenig