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A Thanksgiving Meditation

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On November 10, President Obama, General Casey, and others spoke at a memorial service at Fort Hood, Texas. I was traveling at the time and missed this event, and just came back to it on the recommendation of some friends. It’s worth taking the time to watch this entire event, and the White House should be commended for offering it unedited.

Obama’s remarks displayed considerable rhetorical skill and nuance. Following in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, he mentioned each of the victims by name and spoke briefly about each. “Neither this country — nor the values that we were founded upon — could exist without men and women like these 13 Americans,” he said. “Their life’s work is our security and the freedom that we too often take for granted. Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town; every dawn that a flag is unfurled; every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — that is their legacy.”

Obama’s remarks fit in a genre that stretches back to Thucydides, who recollected a funeral oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles. Indeed, he adhered even to the form and structure of the Pericles speech. That is no coincidence for the former professor at a school that has long made the Athenian speech required reading for undergraduates, and saw in those words the birth of a democratic idealism. But Obama would also know it indirectly from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which, as Gary Wills demonstrates, followed the ancient oration step-by-step. This is not to say that Obama’s remarks, memorable as they were, will be seen by future generations as equal to those of Pericles or Lincoln, but it points to the timelessness of these salutes to the fallen warrior. The dead are seen as embracing the values of the state in whose service they fell.

The speech closes with an exhortation to honor not simply their memory but also their service and civic virtue. In this, the tradition broke with the orations of the Homeric era, which called somewhat crudely on others to follow in battle to honor the dead. Thucydides recalled these words:

If then we prefer to meet danger with a light heart but without laborious training, and with a courage which is gained by habit and not enforced by law, are we not greatly the better for it? Since we do not anticipate the pain, although, when the hour comes, we can be as brave as those who never allow themselves to rest; thus our city is equally admirable in peace and in war. For we are lovers of the beautiful in our tastes and our strength lies, in our opinion, not in deliberation and discussion, but that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting, too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection.

It is appropriate that the President gives this salute at the same moment as he contemplates a commitment of more blood and treasure to a military mission in a distant corner of the globe. It is important that he consider and weigh carefully the sacrifice that will be asked, comparing this with the political interests of the state. The sacrifice can be demanded if the cause is right, but this demand must not be made lightly.

Thanksgiving in the English-speaking world has long been associated with military ventures. Thanks is given for victory over a foe. But in the tradition known to our forefathers, atonement for transgressions followed or preceded the feast day. The festive was joined with the somber and introspective. Thanks should be given for those who serve, facing deprivation, sacrifice, and death. But it is also fitting that thanks should take the form that Pericles, Lincoln, and Obama suggest: a renewed sense of community and a new commitment to honor the highest and best values in our society. In a time of vituperative and even violent political rhetoric, that call badly needs to be heard.

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