Viewpoint: Honoring true heroes on Memorial Day

Karen Rubin, Columnist

President Joe Biden never fails to honor our troops and ask God to bless them.

“I’m the first president in 40 years who knows what it means to have a child serving in a war zone,” he has noted, referring to his son Beau, who has since passed away.

Beginning when she was Second Lady, in conjunction with First Lady Michelle Obama, Jill Biden worked on behalf of troops and military families with the Join Forces campaign. Now, as First Lady, Dr. Biden continues to make military families her priority, focusing on military family employment and entrepreneurship, military child education, and military family health and well-being.

Biden’s proposals for the American Jobs Plan, American Families Plan and the American Rescue Plan go a long way to improving lives for veterans and families.

The Bidens bring a genuine interest, commitment and respect for those who serve in the military, veterans, and especially those who have died in service to the country – and clearly understands the gravity, the awesome responsibility, of a commander in chief ordering soldiers into harm’s way.

This is in marked contrast to politicians and leaders who love to give lip service but use the military as props, for photo ops, to pander to a base, and even more cynically, who use and misuse “glory” and “patriotism” to command blind loyalty for their own benefit.

Memorial Day is about honoring those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. We hear a lot about that sacrifice – “to preserve our freedom” is typically how they finish the sentence. They died for our democracy, for our liberty, for our free and fair elections, for our civil rights.

All of these have taken a beating lately. The word “hypocrisy” is an understatement.

When you really think about it, the only wars actually fought to preserve our freedom were the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II.

Since then, we have been much too eager to go to war using every manner of pretext and pretense. This was largely because after WWII, as the only economy still standing, we were able to amass the mightiest military the human race has ever known – indeed, dominated by what Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial complex.”

No amount of money was spared. We spend more on our military, $778 billion a year (a source of tremendous pride by Trump), than the next 10 countries combined, including China ($252B), India ($72.9B) and Russia ($61.7B) – which is interesting considering the penny-pinching over-investing in infrastructure, or even that we should have had a “peace dividend” after pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Memorial Day began as a way of honoring the fallen in the Civil War. Some 500,000 Americans perished in that war – about half of all American lives lost in all of America’s wars – and another 400,000 in World War II.

Most of them, draftees into service, were ordered into battle by commanders who were cavalier in their power over life and death, who would justify their orders “for the greater good” and could have shot any soldier who refused to follow the command to attack.

But let’s consider what true bravery, true glory, true sacrifice to protect our homeland really is: it’s the thousands of New Yorkers, the tens of thousands of Americans, who braved the lethal coronavirus to give aid and comfort in hospitals and nursing homes, who put their own lives at risk to deliver groceries and prescriptions, who drove buses and trains and manned testing stations, vaccination centers and food pantries.

42,000 New Yorkers so far have died of COVID-19, including 1,000 essential workers. We are approaching the 600,000 mark for all Americans who have “officially” succumbed to the coronavirus pandemic (a number that is likely much higher but already exceeds all those lost in the Civil War, Revolutionary War and Vietnam combined).

And while we are making almost miraculous strides in getting the virus under control because of a stunning effort by the Biden Administration to administer vaccinations (the greatest post-war logistical effort in history), we are not done with it, nor the next pandemic.

We glorify war to ensure a constant stream of recruits, but we also need to glorify – not discourage or intimidate – recruits to public service.

In remarks delivered at Jones Beach, where, once again, the Bethpage Air Show that honors Memorial Day, will be held, Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged these heroes who have been lost to COVID-19 – the doctors, nurses, health workers, and essential workers who knowingly put their lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk, but nonetheless, marched in and did their duty for the greater good – ordering flags at half-staff.

“Remember how frightening COVID was when it started,” Cuomo said. “Remember how frightened people were. They wouldn’t come out of their homes…. Nobody really knew how it was transmitted. And you had people who showed up every day to fight that disease…essential workers did that day, after day, after day, after day, every day, walking into the fire, not knowing if ‘God forbid, am I getting infected and then bringing it back home to my child?’ Nurses, doctors, hospital staff, teachers, food delivery workers, bus drivers, subway drivers.

“All these brave people. I stand up there every day and I say, stay home, be safe, stay home, keep your kids home, stay in. But not you. You’re an essential worker. You have to go to work tomorrow so everybody else can stay home. And they did…You want to talk about brave or you want to talk about courage?

“You want to talk about selflessness? ..If the circumstances ask you to really stand up and put your life on the line, what would you do? Would you stand up and run into the fire, or would you walk away? They walked into the fire every day, and we owe them a profound thank you. We went from the highest infection rate on the globe in New York, to the lowest infection rate, and we saved tens of thousands of lives because there were no people on this planet, like the people of this state. And they showed their character, and their strength, and their courage, and their unity. And remember them and their families on Memorial Day.”

To this list of people who should be honored for their self-sacrifice and heroism, I would add the diplomats who also put themselves on the front lines, in places of extreme risk and danger, in the cause of securing our peace and freedom, many of whom who also made the ultimate sacrifice.

About the author

Karen Rubin

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