Address by Senator John McCain
Neola, IA Veterans Memorial Dedication
September 3, 2007
Thank you very much for inviting me to address you on this occasion of the dedication and unveiling of this fitting and beautiful memorial to veterans. I’m grateful for the opportunity, and pleased to be in the company of Americans who have had the burden of serving our country in distant lands, and the honor of having proved your patriotism in difficult circumstances.
I was blessed to have been born into a family who made their living at sea in defense of our security and ideals. My grandfather was a naval aviator; my father a submariner. Their respect for me was one of the great ambitions of my life. And so it was nearly pre-ordained that I would find a place in my family’s profession, and that occupation would one day take me to war.
Such was not the case for many of you. Your ambitions might not have led you to war; the honors you sought were not kept hidden on battlefields. Many 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 America’s security was as much your responsibility as it was the professional soldier’s. And when you came home, you built a better a country than the one you inherited.
I did what I had prepared much of my life to do. You did what I did and more but without the advantages of training and experience that I possessed. Many of you were kids when you saw combat. I was thirty years old. I believe you outrank me.
I do not mean to dismiss the virtues of the professional soldier. I consider my inclusion in their ranks to be one of the great honors of my life. The Navy was and still 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 conclude mistakenly that the secret bond veterans share is that we enjoyed war. But as most veterans know, war is an experience we would not trade and we would rather not repeat.
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 all description. Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the cruel and merciless reality of war.
Neither do we share nostalgia for the exhilaration of combat. That exhilaration, after all, is really the sensation of choking back fear. We might be proud to have overcome the paralysis of terror. But few of us are so removed from the experience to mistake it today for a welcome thrill.
What we share is something harder to explain. It is in part appreciation for having sacrificed for a cause greater than ourselves; relief for having your courage and honor tested and affirmed in the fearsome crucible of combat; pride for having replaced comfort and security with misery and deprivation and not been broken by the experience. But the most important thing we share, the bond that it is ours alone is very difficult for others who have not shared our experience to understand.
The sacrifices made by veterans deserve to be memorialized in something more lasting than marble or bronze or in the fleeting effect of a politician’s speeches. Your valor and devotion to duty have earned your country’s abiding concern for your welfare. As the greatest leaders in our history, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, instructed us, care for Americans who fought to defend us should rank among the highest of national priorities.
The world in which many of us served was a dangerous one, but more stable than the world today. It was a world where we confronted a massive, organized threat to our security. Our enemy was evil, but not irrational. And for all the suffering endured by captive nations; for all the fear of global nuclear war; it was a world made fairly predictable by a stable balance of power until our steadfastness and patience yielded an historic victory for our security and ideals. That world is gone, and please don’t mistake my reminiscence as an indication that I miss it. If I’m nostalgic for it at all, it is only an old man’s nostalgia for the time where he misspent his youth. That world, after all, had much cruelty and terror, some of which it was our fate to witness personally.
Today, we glimpse the prospect of another, better world, in which all people might someday share in the blessings and responsibilities of freedom. But we also face a threat, and a long war to defeat it, that is as difficult and in many respects more destabilizing than any challenge we have ever faced. We confront an enemy that so despises us and modernity itself that they would use any means, unleash any terror, cause the most unimaginable suffering to harm us, and to destroy the world we have tried throughout our history to build.
I have many responsibilities to the American people, and I try to take them all seriously. But I have one responsibility that outweighs all the others – and that is to use whatever meager talents I possess, and every resource God has granted me to protect the security of this great and good nation from all enemies foreign and domestic. And that I intend to do, even if I must stand athwart popular opinion.
War is a terrible thing, but not the worst thing. You know that, you have endured the dangers and deprivations of war so that the worst thing would not befall us, so that America might be secure in her freedom. The war in Iraq has divided the American people, but it has divided no American in our admiration for the men and women who are fighting for us there. It is every veteran’s hope that should their children be called upon to answer a call to arms, the battle will be necessary and the field well chosen. But that is not their responsibility. It belongs to the government that called them. As it once was for us, their honor will be in their answer not their summons. Whatever we think about how and why we went to war in Iraq, we are all – those who supported the decision that placed them in harm’s way and those who opposed it -- humbled by and grateful for their example. They now deserve the distinction of the best Americans, and we owe them a debt we can never fully repay. We can only offer the small tribute of our humility and our commitment to do all that we can do, in less trying and costly circumstances, to help keep this nation worthy of their sacrifice.
Many of them have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have had their tours extended. Many have returned to combat sooner than they had been led to expect. It is a sad and hard thing to ask so much more of Americans who have already given more than their fair share to the defense of our country. Few of them and their families will have received the news about additional and longer deployments without aiming a few appropriate complaints in the general direction of people like me, who helped make the decision to send them there. And then they shouldered a rifle and risked everything – everything – to accomplish their mission, to protect another people’s freedom and our own country from harm.
It is a privilege beyond measure to live in a country served by them. I have lived a long, eventful and blessed life. I have had the good fortune to know personally a great many brave and selfless patriots who sacrificed and shed blood to defend America. But I have known none braver or better than those who do so today. They are our inspiration, as I suspect all of you were once theirs. And I pray to a loving God that He bless and protect them. Thank you for this opportunity to offer my words of dedication for this monument. May it serve as a constant reminder of the sacrifices that have been made for our country by the citizens of this community.