When I was 17 and a senior at Gorham High School, the Navy awarded me a scholarship to Harvard. I devoted my summers and part of each school year to military training and later spent five years aboard destroyers on active duty during Vietnam, followed by several more years in the Reserve.
Now in my 60s, I have spent an equivalent time in the Maine Senate. These bookends to my life, between a military career as a young man and now as a citizen legislator, give rise to a special point I want to make about veterans.
In an authoritarian society, people go to war because they are forced to. For example, the Germans under Hitler, the Soviets under Stalin, the Chinese under Mao.
But in a democracy, we actually debate whether to go to war — and we keep on debating even while fighting. It is remarkable how military people retain the fortitude to risk their lives for causes that politicians are in such doubt about.
During the Revolutionary War, many of our citizens remained sympathetic to England.
During the Civil War, we Americans fought against ourselves, sometimes our own cousins and siblings.
In Korea, we knew that invading China might be the only way to win; but politicians decided differently.
In the Gulf of Tonkin, I watched Soviet vessels bringing war supplies into Haiphong. My ship could easily have stopped them. We were told not to bother the Russians and to keep on fighting within the limits set by diplomats.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the debate over war still rages among politicians, but our fighting men and women continue to put their lives on the line — protecting our very freedom to debate the reasons for their being there.
For the military man or woman, there can never be uncertainty. When called, we respond without hesitation. We relinquish our freedoms to the chain of command. We suppress our own doubts and qualms, our own right to debate the pros and cons of military action.
Sometimes the hardest thing to accept about being a soldier is that politicians and generals often make mistakes, and your life is on the line because of them. There is also the constant danger of death by friendly fire. One of my closest calls in Vietnam was during a missile attack from American aircraft in which nine U.S. sailors died.
War leaves many wounds, not just to individuals, but to society as well. These days of remembrance give us time to heal, to pause and reflect, to make sense of the past.
The purpose of Memorial Day is to remember and honor our veterans. Remembering makes us all better citizens. Remembering the sacrifices of the dead helps us more freely contribute our own services when we are called upon, often in smaller ways, to serve on a jury, to pay taxes, to join a school board, to be a town selectman or a county commissioner, to serve on a planning board or in the Legislature.
John McCain is fond of saying: “Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause greater than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”
When visiting cemeteries on Memorial Day, I wonder what the veterans lying there would say if they could still speak. What would they want us to know?
I think they would say this: “Enjoy your lives today, the picnics, the sunshine, the company of relatives and friends, your children, the good things in life, grilled hamburgers, cold milk from Maine cows, a locally brewed beer.”
They would say: “Look, we died so that you could enjoy the life you have before you, the freedoms, and the pleasures of that life.”
But they would also say at the end: “Take just one moment for us today — that’s all we ask — just a moment to please remember us. And as you remember us, always be prepared to render service of your own when your country calls.”
Peter Mills served in the U.S. Navy from 1965 to 1970. He is a state senator from Cornville and a Republican candidate for governor.