Mr. Wabash (John Houseman):
I go back even further: to ten years after the Great War, as we called it. Before we knew enough to number them.
Higgins (Cliff Robertson):
You miss that kind of action, sir?
No… I miss that kind of clarity.
(a slice of dialogue from the 1975 film, Three Days of the Condor)
It’s Veterans Day. We honor our military veterans. My step-father, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, two brothers, one son, and his wife, have all served our country in my immediate family. We are proud, and grateful.
No wars are easy, or remotely pleasant. Recently, our movies have gotten, apparently, closer to the truth about the brutality of war. (The beach-landing scene in Saving Private Ryan is gut-wrenching)…
But lately, I have been reading about the Civil War. I read major excerpts of The Cornerstone Speech, delivered by the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. (This is in a book, The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta by Marc Wortman– I am presenting a review to a group in Dallas next week). It is crystal clear in its intent. It put forth the reason for the war – to reject the “faulty premise” that “all men are created equal.” Here’s an excerpt:
(Jefferson’s) ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. … Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner–stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.
The Cornerstone Speech reminds us that wars are fought over great causes. I think the idea that “all men are created equal” is non-negotiable. Here is a portion of a speech given by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (text here) from the movie Gettysburg.
This regiment was formed last summer in Maine. There were a thousand of us then. There are less than three hundred of us now. All of us volunteered to fight for the union, just as you did. Some came mainly because we were bored at home — thought this looked like it might be fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came because it was the right thing to do. And all of us have seen men die.
This is a different kind of army. If you look back through history, you will see men fighting for pay, for women, for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king leads them or — or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free.
America should be free ground — all of it. Not divided by a line between slave state and free — all the way, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here, we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here, you can be something. Here, is the place to build a home.
But it’s not the land. There’s always more land.
It’s the idea that we all have value — you and me.
What we’re fighting for, in the end, we’re fighting for each other.
To fight for a great cause is a noble effort. And though there may be other wars that lack such clarity, to fight for freedom is a great cause. And, such fighting has kept us free. We are grateful.
Such clarity is clearly evident in this, the greatest speech ever given on American soil, according to some, delivered on November 19, 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, following a battle that cost a full 51,000 human lives (according to best estimates – there is debate as to the most accurate count).
Here’s the speech:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.