Why You Fight
A Speech to the 224th Military Intelligence Battalion
In honor of Veterans Day, I’m sharing with you a speech I delivered last year to the to 224th Military Intelligence Battalion of the United States Army. It was truly one of the great honors of my life. The “First-Lieutenant Thompson” to whom I refer is my second son, Samuel, who invited me on behalf of the Battalion to deliver this speech.
Thank you, First-Lieutenant Thompson, and many thanks to Lieutenant-Colonel Rouzer and Sergeant-Major Milam for hosting this event and for leading this outstanding group of young men and women in the 224th Military Intelligence Battalion.
Let me say that it is a great honor for me to be here tonight. I have given hundreds of public talks in my lifetime, but this one is by far the one of which I am most proud.
I would also like to thank all of you for tolerating First-Lieutenant Thompson. Clearly, you have succeeded, at least to a certain degree, in making him semi-respectable in ways that I did not and could not achieve myself. I’m pleased to know that he’s your problem now and not mine.
None of you are here tonight to hear a snooty college professor blather on about all kinds of boring stuff. We’re here tonight to celebrate your hard work and dedication to protecting the United States of America. I will, therefore, be mercifully brief. And I know you want to get to the GROG. [The battalion’s version of grog consists of a least ten different kinds of alcohol.]
The assignment First-Lieutenant Thompson has given me for tonight is to give a brief and hopefully non-boring talk connecting all of you to America’s first-ever Army, George Washington’s Continental Army.
The title of my talk tonight is, “Why You Fight.”
I don’t presume to know all of the reasons that motivated each one of you to join the United States Army, but I do suspect that maybe the most important reason is because you love America and you want to defend her from all enemies foreign and domestic.
Yours is a noble cause—maybe the most noble of all causes.
With your permission, I would like to try to put in words “why you fight.”
I’m assuming that most of you have not seen combat and may never see it, but one overriding fact remains: you signed up to defend your country. You signed up knowing that you might fight and die. Those hoity-toity, artsy-fartsy, namby-pamby college kids didn’t, but YOU did. And that’s what distinguishes you from the rest of us.
The very act of enlisting separates you from 99% percent of the American population. On the day you took your oath of induction you swore not only to defend the Constitution and the republic for which it stands, but you implicitly said that you’re willing to die.
Morally speaking, you are the 1%.
Before you feel too special, however, it’s important for all of us to remember that you are just the last in a long line of Americans who have put on the uniform to defend the United States. Many soldiers before you have died, been maimed, or scarred for life.
Still, you are tied to, and have a bond with, past generations of soldiers—those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, Viet Nam, Korea, two World Wars, the Civil War, and in the War for Independence from Britain.
To understand why you fight, we must return to July 4th, 1776. On that day, the American Continental Congress took the momentous action of voting in support of the Declaration of Independence. The words of the Declaration of Independence are the best known in American history.
To quote President Biden, “you know the thing”:
We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal;
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness;
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The publication of the Declaration of Independence meant one thing: WAR.
The Declaration was itself a call to war. With its eloquent and stirring words, it was a causal force in motivating American revolutionaries to take certain actions.
But the Declaration meant war not just for the 56 men who signed it. Tens of thousands of ordinary men and boys were, in effect, pledging to fight against the greatest military power in the world. Some would die, some would be maimed, some would be captured, imprisoned, and tortured, and virtually all would suffer from exhaustion, starvation, and exposure.
The Declaration’s words really only had motivating meaning to the Americans because they already had deeply imbedded in their moral constitutions what they often referred to as the “spirit of liberty.”
The spirit of American liberty is a sentiment, a mindset, a disposition, and a virtue.
As a sentiment, it loves freedom and hates slavery. As a mindset, it is watchful, suspicious, and skeptical. As a disposition, it is active, jealous, restless, resolute, protective, and, most of all, vigilant. And as a virtue, it is defined by integrity, fortitude, perseverance, courage, and patriotism.
After the Second Continental Congress unanimously approved the Declaration of Independence, the document was printed and distributed throughout the United States. It was imperative that all Americans be told as quickly as possible that they were now an independent nation, and that this new country would have to defend itself on the battlefield against the Redcoats.
Fast riders on horseback then delivered copies to each of the former colonies. Once received in cities, towns, and villages, the Declaration was read publicly to large civilian audiences in state after state, in public meetings up and down the Atlantic seaboard, and from the coast to the Appalachian Mountains. The Declaration’s effect on the spirit of the American people was electrifying.
The Declaration of Independence also played an important role in motivating George Washington’s volunteer army.
On July 9, 1776, as the sun was setting over New York City, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army ordered all the fighting brigades in the city to convene in lower Manhattan to hear one of the first-ever public readings of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration’s words inspired and galvanized the young men to fight, and possibly to die, in the name of defending their homes and their most deeply held moral principles.
By energizing the spirit of the people, the Declaration also served to inspire men to join Washington’s army. Sometime after the signing of the document, an unknown farmer in Pennsylvania gave a speech to a meeting of his neighbors in Philadelphia County to explain why he was joining up:
“I am an American,” he declared, “and am determined to be free.” This unknown but eloquent farmer went on to explain what the inescapable logic of his principles meant in practice:
We have no alternative left us, but to fight or die. If there be a medium, it is slavery; and ever cursed be the man who will submit to it! I will not. I, therefore, conceive myself as having taken up arms in defence of innocence, justice, truth, honesty, honour, liberty, property, and life; and in opposition to guilt, injustice, falsehood, dishonesty, ignominy, slavery, poverty, and death. I will part with my life sooner than with my liberty; for I prefer an honourable death to the miserable and despicable existence of slavery. Blest be the spirit of American liberty, wisdom, and valour.
This is a stunning example of actions taken on the motivation of clear moral principles.
Ideas have consequences, and the Declaration’s ideas fired up American men to fight and die for liberty in the years after 1776.
American revolutionaries acted consistently in the name of a morally absolute principle. Americans high and low, rich and poor, young and old understood the necessity to defend their country and their moral principles. And that is precisely what they did.
In the year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, General Washington’s army moved from Massachusetts to New York, and then to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Before and after every battle, Washington spoke to his troops to fortify and renew their fighting spirit of liberty.
In the late summer of 1776, now in New York City and preparing for several battles in defense of Manhattan, he once again addressed his troops:
The Enemy have now landed on Long Island, and the hour is fast approaching, on which the Honor and Success of this army, and the safety of our bleeding Country depend. Remember officers and Soldiers, that you are Freemen, fighting for the blessings of Liberty—that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men.
But words only go so far. They must be translated into action, and few men are truly ready for the brutality and horror that comes with actual fighting.
Still, they fought.
After taking lower Manhattan, British forces pushed forward to the north end of the island on their way to New Jersey. The British goal was to take Fort Washington, which was the rebels’ last redoubt on the lower Hudson.
On November 15th, William Howe, the commander-in-chief of British forces in America, sent one of his officers to deliver a message to Robert Magaw, the American commander at Fort Washington. Howe’s message left no room for misunderstanding: surrender the fort or face total destruction.
Magaw’s reply to Howe summed up perfectly the spirit of American liberty:
Give me leave to assure his excellency that actuated by the most glorious cause that mankind ever fought in, I am determined to defend this post to the very last extremity.
“Give me liberty, or give me death,” “Live free or die,” “We hold these truths to be self-evident”—these were more than highfalutin slogans to the Americans. They had genuine meaning for America’s fighting men. Ideas and principles provided the motivation for action—sometimes life-or-death action.
On November 16th, 1776, some 8,000 British soldiers attacked Fort Washington. Fifty-three Americans were killed, 96 were wounded, and just over 2,800 were taken prisoner, most of whom were imprisoned on British ships where hundreds would die of starvation, disease, or exposure.
After the loss of Fort Washington and New York City, General Washington and his army were on the run. Washington’s increasingly ragtag soldiers were first driven to New Jersey; then, in early December 1776, with the British chasing close behind, the Americans commandeered every skiff, boat, and raft they could round up and escaped across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.
A brutal early winter had set in. Washington’s citizen-soldiers were cold and miserable, and some were sick and starving.
The American painter and inventor, Charles Willson Peale, watched the American landing from the Pennsylvania shore. Peale immediately made his way to the soldiers’ camp and was left shaken by what he saw. Several soldiers were barely clothed. One soldier, he said, “was in an Old dirty Blanket Jacket, his beard long, and his face so full of Sores that he could not clean it.” The man was so badly “disfigured” that Peale failed to recognize at first that he was looking into the eyes of his own brother, James.
During the American soldiers’ winter of despair, Major-General William Heath from Massachusetts reported seeing troops from another regiment “so destitute of shoes,” he wrote,” that the blood left on the frozen ground, in many places, marked the route they had taken.”
American revolutionaries were rebels with a cause.
The moral universe they inhabited might seem like a foreign place to 21st-century Americans, but we forget its moral lessons at our peril. Their revolution is surely one of history’s greatest monuments to human virtue. It is ours to remember and celebrate.
Almost 250 years later, all of you took an oath, just like Washington’s soldiers did in 1776 to defend this country.
. . . So, why do you fight?
Your job is to preserve the spirit of America’s original founding principles. On the day you enlisted, all of you chose to risk your lives in defense of this country and those principles. In doing so, you announced to the world that you refuse to live as the conquered slave of any foreign enemy or domestic tyrant.
I can think of nothing more noble. To one degree or another, you are all moral heroes. You carry on a glorious tradition that is worth defending.
Or, in the words of Ukranian President Zelensky in his address to the United States Congress earlier this year, “slava heroyam” [“Glory to the heroes.”]
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