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BBHQ Boomer Essays:

The Measure of Sacrifice

Our Boomer-In-Charge at BBHQ, Hershel Chicowitz, writes about boomer memories and current events... from a boomer’s perspective. He is sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, some-
times a little of each. We hope you get a kick out of our Boomer Essays.

My mother said that one of the main differences between the Vietnam War and World War II was that, during her war, everyone was involved in the war... every day. Even if you did not listen to the radio or read the newspaper, you could not avoid the war – be it a drive to sell war bonds at work, news of the death of someone you knew, or the inability to buy a washing machine, gasoline, or even butter. Every day, it was all around you.

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When I think about the concepts, themes and principles that helped form my character, I think of traditions. I love traditions. They give our lives structure, strength and a sense of stability. Most of the traditions I remember revolve around holidays.

My mother called it “Decoration Day”; for most of her life, it was May 30. Decoration Day was first observed on May 30, 1868 in order to encourage decorating the graves of soldiers who had died during the Civil War. In 1971, Congress included Memorial Day as part of the Monday holiday law. Still, every year my mother decorated her father’s grave and her husband’s grave — on May 30th. It was an important tradition.

I remember marching in the parade down our main street on Decoration Day. I was a Boy Scout. In high school, I was in the band that marched in the parade. During my senior year I was the drum major — I led the band! Uniforms, flags, crowds, music, food... and remembrance.

My father participated in the tradition each year by reading a speech to us: the Gettysburg address (that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion), Washington’s farewell address, one of FDR’s fireside chats, Lincoln’s second inaugural address (With malice toward none, with charity for all...).

In 1961 my dad read President Kennedy’s inaugural address: Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

JFK Inauguration Speech excerpt
(I must have missed the speech a few months earlier – I was just a kid.)

Yep; one year my sister and I memorized the Gettysburg address.

It is not at all surprising that, half a century later, I have such a reverence for the power and beauty of words.

The Memorial Day celebration at the Capitol each year focuses on those who have died in the war on terror — as well it should. It is a terrible price to pay because a handful of maniacs want to rule the Middle East and defeat the United States — and are eager to murder millions of innocent people in order to do so.

During the initial invasion of Iraq, about 125 American soldiers died. But let’s step back and take a broader look at the measure of sacrifice. About half that many soldiers died during the Vietnam war... every week — every week, for twelve years!

World War II took the lives of over 250,000 American soldiers. The estimated number of combat-related deaths for all countries involved in the war ranges from 20 million to over 40 million.

One war; forty million deaths.

My mother said that one of the main differences between the Vietnam War and World War II was that, during her war, everyone was involved in the war... every day. Even if you did not listen to the radio or read the newspaper, you could not avoid the war — be it a drive to sell war bonds at work, news of the death of someone you knew, or the limited ability to buy a washing machine, gasoline, or even butter. Every day, it was all around you. You were a part of the war, like it or not.

My parents had gotten married in 1940. My father was a doctor; he was planning to start his own practice; in 1941 my parents were looking at houses... planning a family. Then came Pearl Harbor. A month later, he and hundreds of his colleagues were on a ship to... to who knows where. They would not tell him, even when they were a thousand miles at sea.

Six weeks later, he was in Australia. He did not step on U.S. soil until four years later. And, of course, he was one of the lucky ones.

Four years.

But again, he and his colleagues were among the lucky ones.

There was no Internet back then — no e-mail. There were telephones; but a phone call back home was out of the question. My mother wrote letters to my father several times a week. But only about half of those letters found their way to him. My dad wrote to my mother, his sister and his parents regularly. I have several of the letters he wrote to my aunt. (She was a pack-rat extraordinaire!) Still, my mother did not hear his voice for over four years.

We are all capable of much more than we realize. Our parents proved that. They, and the generations that preceded them, represent the measure of sacrifice. They are the ones we decorate on Memorial Day.

This afternoon I think I will read the letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby that President Lincoln wrote upon learning of the death of her sons in the Civil War. (Steven Spielberg used the letter in Saving Private Ryan, the 1998 movie that captured the sacrifices made on D-Day.) You are welcome to join me.

Executive Mansion
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.
Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine that would attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
A. Lincoln

The measure of sacrifice.

To Honor Those Who Gave the Last Full Measure of Devotion

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