“I, _____ , having been appointed [an officer] in the [Armed Forces], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.”
The US military’s oath of office (or enlistment): simple words, but profound and life-changing for everyone who has ever raised their right hand and repeated them as they put on the uniform of our military forces, no matter how long they may serve. They embody a promise to be kept, with inherent duties to fulfill. What sets these words apart from similar vows is that no one taking this oath ever knows for sure where it might lead. As long as one continues in service — most times voluntarily, but sometimes not — they are subject to what has been called the “unlimited liability clause:”
Someone who becomes a soldier is crossing a legally defined boundary. A soldier gives up some individual rights (such as the right to withdraw his labour), accepts collective standards which contribute to the common good, and undertakes, in the last analysis, to kill or be killed for a purpose in which he may have no personal interest.
General Sir John Hackett called this ‘the contract of unlimited liability’. However closely the army may come to resemble society, and however rarely it is called upon to apply lethal force, the essential characteristic of this contract still remains.
In other words, only in the profession of arms can one be legally ordered to perform tasks and conduct operations that expose one to the threat of imminent harm or even death. Indeed, that defines the very nature of the military and its purpose: to conduct, and prevail in, armed conflict. As someone once said, “A veteran is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America’ for an amount of ‘up to and including my life.’ That truth is as humbling as it is remarkable.
Memorial Day is not really about veterans in general, but particularly honors those who have been lost while serving. People join the military for a variety of reasons: some desire the sense of adventure or unique experiences, some the education and training, and some the chance to travel and “see the world.” Most have some notion of patriotism or service above self — dedicating their lives to something bigger than oneself. They understand the tradeoff between individual liberty and the nation’s freedom and security in rendering their service, not knowing how much it might cost. For some, it cost them “the last full measure of devotion” as Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg. But they are not the only ones who paid that ultimate price.
This day will be marked by ceremonies and speeches, symbolic gestures and military honors. For many, it will include a trip to the beach or lake, family gatherings, barbecues and celebrating the beginning of summer. Those things are not contradictory. But surrounding them all will be the tears of the the families of the lost, for whom the pain of missing their loved one is not limited to the last Monday in May. Despite that poignancy, know this: It is for those very things that those who chose the military served, and in some cases perished. We enjoyed those freedoms before we enlisted, while we served, and we enjoy them now. And as a nation we will continue to enjoy them as long as men and women are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, to answer the call to service. It is possible to both celebrate and commemorate the incredible gift of liberty and security which makes the United States the envy of other nations, while honoring those who have ensured those blessings continue.
Take a moment to remember them today, and pray for their families. The national moment of remembrance takes place at 3PM local time. Whether you pause then, or throughout the day, give them and their families a dedicated moment in time. It’s all they ever asked for, and all they really need.
Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.
– John 15:13