Thursday, May 31, 2007
A Memorial Day Speech
Memorial Day, 2007
MG (Ret) Robert H Scales
Mr. Kuhn, friends of Gettysburg and most importantly fellow veterans.
What a great thrill it is to return to Gettysburg. I've come to this
place hundreds of times. I've walked this ground when it was covered
with snow, in the heat of summer, in a pouring rain storm while leading
a staff ride with the leadership of the Chinese Army a few years ago.
Coming here never gets old. It never becomes tiresome. It never fails
to excite a passion or raise my spirit. To those who have never seen war
surely emotions like these seem strange indeed. Some of our citizens who
hear old soldiers like me talk about a love for a battlefield conclude
that we love war. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Part of my love for this place is personal. A distant relative, Colonel
Alfred M. Scales, was seriously wounded leading Scales North Carolina
Brigade up Seminary Ridge on the first day of the battle.
Another reason I venerate this place is because it is a soldier's
laboratory and a place to learn the art of war. We soldiers practice our
profession only infrequently so we rely on past battles to teach us
about the future. Even though Gettysburg was fought using weapons that
seem primitive to young soldiers the lessons it teaches about leadership
and courage and intellect are immutable. We are learning again in Iraq
and Afghanistan that war is not a test of technology it is a test of the
collective will and talents of soldiers and the nature and character of
that test will never change.
Another reason why this place attracts me is because all of what you
see around you is so close to home. This was America's war from both
sides, fought on ground that is so familiar and recognizable. It was the
first war fought in which most soldiers were literate and, thanks to the
recent invention of photography, so recognizable. When you go to the
visitors center look into the eyes of the young soldiers staring at you
from across the century and you'll see a reflection of yourselves.
But I'm drawn here mainly to relive and revive in my own soul the
unique influences that brought young soldiers here to fight and die a
century and a half ago. Again and again, it's the same old question from
politicians and media who have the rare privilege of watching soldiers
in action in Iraq and Afghanistan: why is their morale so high? Don't
they know the American people are fed up with this war? Don't they know
it's going badly? Often they come to me incredulous about what they
perceive as a misspent sense of patriotism and loyalty.
I tell them time and again what every one of you sitting here today,
those of you who have seen the face of death in war, understand: it's
not really about loyalty. It's not about a belief in some abstract
notion concerning war aims or national strategy. It's not even about
winning or losing. On that fateful evening on the last day of June 1863
soldiers weren't sitting around campfires in Cashtown or Emmittsburg
roasting coffee and frying bacon to discuss the latest pronouncements
from Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. They might have trusted their leaders
or maybe they didn't. They might have been well informed and passionate
about their cause or maybe not. They might have joined the colors to end
slavery or restore the Union or maybe they just were shanghaied on the
docks in Brooklyn or Manhattan.
Before battle young soldiers then and now think about their buddies.
They talk about families, wives and girlfriends and relate to each other
through very personal confessions. The armies that met at Gettysburg
were not from the social elite. They didn't have Harvard degrees or the
pedigree of political bluebloods. They were in large measure immigrant
Irish or German kids from northern farms and factories or poor scratch
farmers from the piedmont of Virginia, Georgia, Texas and North
Carolina. Just as in Iraq today soldiers then came from every corner of
our country to meet in harsh an forbidding places in far corners of the
world, places that I've seen and visited but can never explain
adequately to those who have never been there.
Soldiers suffer, fight and occasionally die for each other. It's as
simple as that. What brought Longstreet's or Hancock's men to face the
canister on Little Round Top or rifled musket fire on Cemetery Ridge was >no different than the motive force that compels young soldiers today to >kick open a door in Ramadi with the expectation that what lies on the
other side is either an innocent huddling with a child in her arms or a
fanatic insurgent yearning to buy his ticket to eternity by killing the
infidel. No difference.
A civil war soldier was often lured from the slums of New York or
Philadelphia and coerced into the Army by promise of a 300 dollar bonus
and 25 dollars a month. Patriotism and a paycheck may get a soldier into
the Army but fear of letting his buddies down gets a soldier to do
something that might just as well get him killed.
What makes a person successful in America today is a far cry from what
would have made him a success in the minds of those who we honor here
today. Big bucks gained in law or real estate, or big deals closed in
the stock market make some of our countrymen rich. But as they grow
older they realize that they have no buddies. There is no one who they
are willing to die for or who is willing to die for them.
A last point of history before I close today. The Anglo Saxon heritage
of buddy loyalty has been long and frightfully won. Almost six hundred
years ago the English king, Henry V, waited on a cold and muddy
battlefield to face a French army many times his size. Shakespeare
captured the ethos of that moment in his play Henry V.
To be sure Shakespeare wasn't there but he was there in spirit because
he understood the emotions that gripped and the bonds that brought
together both king and soldier. Henry didn't talk about national
strategy. He didn't try to justify faulty intelligence or ill formed
command decisions that put his soldiers at such a terrible disadvantage.
Instead, he talked about what made English soldiers fight and what in
all probably would allow them to prevail the next day against terrible
odds. Remember this is a monarch talking to his men:
This story shall the good man teach his son;
From this day ending to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his
blood with me shall be my brother;
And gentlemen in England (or America) now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhood's cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
You all here assembled inherit the spirit of St Crispin's day. You know
and understand the strength of comfort that those whom you protect,
those in America now abed, will never know. You will live a life of self
awareness and personal satisfaction that those who watched you from afar
in this country who "hold their manhood cheap" can only envy.
I don't care that virtually all of America is at the Mall rather than at
this memorial today. It doesn't bother me that war is an image that
America would rather ignore. It's enough for me to have the privilege to
be among you. It's sufficient to talk to each of you about things we
have seen and kinships we have shared in the tough and heartless
crucible of war.
Some day we will all join those who are resting here. Over a campfire of
boiling coffee and frying bacon you will join with your Civil War band
of brothers to recount the experience of serving something greater than
yourselves. I believe in my very soul that the Almighty reserves a
corner of heaven, probably around an inextinguishable campfire where
some day we can meet and embrace... all of the band of brothers
throughout the ages to tell our stories while envious standers-by watch
and wonder how horrific and incendiary the crucible of violence must
have been to bring such a disparate assemblage so close to the hand of
Until we meet there thank you for your service, thank you for your
sacrifice, God bless you all and God bless this great nation...