Statement Before the Veterans of Foreign Wars
March 7, 1995Kansas City, Missouri – Senator John McCain spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars today regarding military service, and gave the following remarks:
Thank you. I fear I cannot adequately express my deep gratitude for the great honor you have done me by giving me this award. As often as we are the targets of public abuse, politicians also often find we are the recipients of undeserved acclaim. After a while, one learns to keep both scorn and praise in perspective. They come with the job.
Tonight is different. I am deeply moved to be recognized for some small service by you who have distinguished yourselves by your service to our country in war. For most of us, it has been many years since we wore the uniform. But it is still the opinion of those who wore the uniform that matters most to us. I want to thank you very much for choosing me to receive the VFW's Congressional Award. It is an honor I will long cherish.
I will also long remember the honor the people of Arizona have bestowed upon me by trusting me to represent their interests in Congress. I believe they would understand, however, when I say that I once knew a greater honor. It is an honor I share with all of you, an honor we learned about in America, but experienced in someone else's country. It is the great honor of knowing your duty and ransoming your life to its accomplishment.
I was blessed to have been born into a family who made their living at sea in defense of their country's cause. My grandfather was a naval aviator; my father a submariner. They were my first heroes, and their respect for me has been the most lasting ambition of my life. It was nearly pre-ordained that I would someday find a place in my family's profession, and that my fate would carry me to war.
Such was not the case for most of you. Your ambitions did not lead you to war; the honors you first sought were not kept hidden on battlefields. Most of you were citizen-soldiers. You answered the call when it came; took up arms for your country's sake; and fought to the limit of your ability because you believed your country's welfare was as much your responsibility as it as the professional soldier's.
I did what I had been prepared for most of my life to do. You did what I did but without the advantages of training and experience that I possessed. You were kids when you saw combat. I was thirty years old. I believe you outranked me.
I do not mean to dismiss the virtues of the professional soldier. I consider my inclusion in their ranks to be the great honor of my life. The Navy was and yet remains the world I know best and love most. The Navy took me to war.
Unless you are a veteran you might find it odd that I would be indebted to the Navy for sending me to war. You might mistakenly conclude that the secret veterans' share is that they enjoyed war.
We do share a secret, but it is not a romantic remembrance of war. War is awful. When nations seek to resolve their differences by force of arms, a million tragedies ensue. Nothing, not the valor with which it is fought nor the nobility of the cause it serves, can glorify war. War is wretched beyond description. Whatever gains are secured by war, it is loss that the veteran remembers. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the cruel and merciless reality of war.
Neither do we share a nostalgia for the exhilaration of combat. That exhilaration, after all, is really the sensation of choking back fear. I think we are all proud to have once overcome the paralysis of terror. But few of us are so removed from the memory of that terror to mistake it today for a welcome thrill.
What we share is something harder to explain. It is in part a pride for having sacrificed together for a cause greater than our individual pursuits; pride for having your courage and honor tested and affirmed in a fearsome moment of history; pride for having replaced comfort and security with misery and deprivation and not been broken by the experience.
We also share -- and this is harder to explain -- the survivors' humility. That's a provocative statement, I know, and the non-veteran may easily mistake its meaning. I am not talking about shame. I know of no shame in surviving combat. But every combat veteran remembers those comrades whose sacrifice was eternal. Their loss taught us everything about tragedy and everything about duty.
I suspect that at one time or another almost everyone in this room has been called a hero for having done their duty. It is at that moment that we feel most keenly the memory of our comrades who did not return with us to the country we love so dearly. I cannot help but wince a little when heroism is ascribed to me. For I once watched men pay a much higher price for that honor than was asked of me.
I am grateful, as we all are, to have come home alive. I prayed daily for deliverance from war. No one of my acquaintance ever chose death over homecoming. But I witnessed some men choose death over dishonor. The memory of them, of what they bore for country and honor helped me to see the virtue in my own humility.
It is in that humility -- and only in that humility -- that the memory of almost all human experiences -- love and hate, loss and redemption, joy and despair, suffering and release, regret and gratitude -- reside. In the end, that is the secret that veterans share. It is a surpassing irony that war, for all its unspeakable horrors, provides the combatant with every conceivable human experience. Experiences that usually take a lifetime to know are all felt -- and felt intensely -- in one brief moment of life. Anyone who loses a loved one knows what great loss feels like. Anyone who gives life to a child knows what great joy feels like. The veteran knows what great joy and great loss feel like when they occur in the same moment, in the same experience.
That is why when we are asked about our time at war, we often offer the contradictory response that it was an experience that, if given the choice, we would neither trade nor repeat. The meaning behind that response is powerful, and I fear that my own powers of expression have failed to explain it clearly. But you know what I am talking about, and in gratitude for the honor you have bestowed on me, I wanted to this evening talk about things I more often leave unexpressed.
Perhaps, I should talk about the veterans issues before the 104th Congress. But no doubt you have by this point in your convention heard from both Congress and the Administration a great many promises to protect and advance the interests of American veterans. For my part, I would simply affirm that the sacrifices borne by veterans deserve to be memorialized in something more lasting than marble or bronze or in the fleeting effect of a politician's speech. Your valor and your devotion to duty have earned your country's abiding concern for your well being. I am, I assure you, committed to honoring that debt.
I suspect you already knew that or you would not have honored me with this award. And, as I said, I wanted to talk of other things as well tonight, of the experiences we share and the memory that holds us to one another.
Let me talk now of what you gave your country, the contribution for which the nation is in your debt. It is more than the battles you won. More than Iwo Jima or Midway or the Battle of the Bulge. More than the Chosin Reservoir or Inchon. More than flights over that most heavily defended enemy capital, Hanoi. More than Khe San or the I Drang.
All these battles, all these grim tests of courage and character have made a legend of the American fighting man's devotion to duty in every community in America. And it is the lesson of your courage that will help instruct those who will defend our country tomorrow in their duty. For they will seek to immortalize in their own devotion to duty your valor and the long and noble history of a free people's defense of their liberty. Their character will be derived in part from their appreciation of your character.
You know, as well as I, that the world in which they shoulder their responsibilities is an uncertain one. Our familiarity with man's inhumanity to man assures us that Americans will be asked someday to again bear sacrifices that only the brave can endure. That burden will be their honor, as it was once ours.
I have memories of that honor that caution me to this day to be careful when asking such sacrifices of others. But I fear that the day will come when my caution is overcome by necessity.
Last June, the free world celebrated one of the greatest battles in the long struggle against tyranny -- the invasion of Normandy. President Clinton, quite appropriately, memorialized the occasion by recognizing the profound debt the world owes to the veterans of D Day. In the President's words: "they saved the world."
Our world, then and now, is indeed the consequence of their suffering on killing grounds that were once and are again quiet beaches in a peaceful corner of the free world. But the memory of their sacrifice, and the memories of sacrifice that are held by all of you, caution us always to never assume that peace is the normal state of world affairs.
I have memories of a place so far removed from the comforts of this blessed country that I have forgotten some of the anguish it once brought me. But my happiness these last twenty years has not let me forget the friends who did not come home with me. The memory of them, of what they bore for honor and country, causes me to look in every prospective conflict for the shadow of Vietnam.
I do not let that shadow hold me in fear from my duty as I have been given light to see that duty. Yet, it no longer falls to me to bear arms in my country's defense. It falls to our children, and our children's children. I pray that if the time comes for them to answer a call to arms, the battle will be necessary and the field well chosen. But that will not be their responsibility. As it once was for us, their honor is in their answer, not their summons.
I trust in their willingness and ability to answer the call faithfully. I hold that trust in deference to memories of brave men lost long ago. I hold that trust in deference to you and the courage with which you came of age during a moment of violence.
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