General Jackson, thank you. Thank you for your leadership of the men and women of the Military District of Washington whose efforts help us honor America’s noble dead today and everyday. Members of our Joint Chiefs of Staff, including our Chairman, General Richard Myers, Vice Chairman General Peter Pace, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, welcome: the representatives of the finest armed forces in the world. [Applause.]
We extend a special welcome to the Minister of Defense from Sweden and representatives of many armed forces of friendly nations around the world who’ve come on this special Memorial Day to honor our dead. [Applause.] There are indeed so many honored guests here today that I can’t single them out personally, but I would, most of all, like to pay honor to those most honored guests: the families of those we remember today and the veterans who served with them. [Applause.]
Thousands of people come to Arlington each day. Thousands are here now, in this amphitheater or walking its peaceful pathways. People come here for many different reasons. Some come to see the resting place of a President, or of a military hero. Some come simply to see this garden of stone, to offer a quiet prayer to a name they have never heard before, a name etched above a soldier’s grave. Some bring flowers for someone they do know, someone they have lost. Some come here because this is ground where heroes sleep and it belongs to every American.
But all of the soldiers buried here are somehow familiar to us, even if we know them only by a name, or even they are known only to God. For we know something of what was in the hearts of all those who rest here. We know something of their dreams, because we know this: they were all Americans.
On this day, in this place and in so many other places across America and around the world, people struggle, as I do now, to find words that can give proper honor to the lives and memories of America’s fallen heroes, knowing that words alone are never enough. Our humble efforts to describe their valor or their deeds, why they lie here, inevitably fall short. Perhaps we can honor them best by remembering what it means to be an American—what it meant to them and what it means to us today.
From the earliest days of our nation, even before independence had been won, General George Washington understood that the toil and blood that purchased a new nation would have lasting meaning only if the character of the nation matched the sacrifice of those who fought for its independence. Only if the independence of that new nation were secured on the pillars of justice and freedom.
Even as a boy, Abraham Lincoln often recalled that the men of Lexington and Valley Forge remembered that they struggled for something far beyond the ordinary, their painstaking steps to victory spurred on by something unique.
Later, as President, when Lincoln saw the fabric of our nation tearing apart, its ultimate character in question, he led another generation of men who would bleed and die for that extraordinary idea.
Lincoln knew that by their sacrifice the men who fought and died recast this nation—they remade it into something better than it was before. It was that conviction which led him to resolve on the battlefield of Gettysburg "that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."
A new birth of freedom. A nation where the right of the people to govern themselves is realized, where religion is a matter of personal conscience, where dreams are large. And where, through education and determination, every person can make those dreams real, and in so doing, make a better world. All of us fortunate enough to live in this great country have known a government, in George Washington’s words, "which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
But as we learned so painfully last September, there are those whose dreams are small, whose world is circumscribed by bigotry and persecution, resentment and oppression, hatred and death.
The men and women who were lost in the Pentagon, just a few hundred yards from here, on that morning in September, died, as Secretary Rumsfeld has said, because their attackers sensed that "the opposite of all they were, and stood for, resided [there]." Those Americans died, he said, "because of how they lived—as free men and women, proud of their freedom, proud of their country and proud of their country’s cause—the cause of human freedom." They died because they were Americans. [Applause.]
One man’s pride in his country represented all who died that day. Secretary Rumsfeld recalled what was said of Navy Lieutenant Commander Vince Tolbert: "To his family, his friends and his peers … he was a hero every single day." Into these gentle hills which overlooked the Pentagon’s charred and broken walls, he was received. And on that day, his father, himself a Navy veteran who flew combat missions in Vietnam, said, "The Navy lost a good officer … I lost a good son."
When the terrorists attacked, they may have thought they knew who we were. But they did not. They thought we were weak, grown used to comfort, softened by everything we enjoy in this great nation. But just eight months now after Vince Tolbert was laid to rest here, the fires of the Pentagon’s burning walls long ago quenched, yet another fire burns—within those who rebuild its walls piece by piece.
That same fire burned within the passengers onboard Flight 93. Led by Todd Beamer’s battle cry, they were heroes, too. "Let’s roll," they said. And they did. They rolled over the hijackers’ twisted dream, and brought it down in a Pennsylvania field.
Todd’s father says he’s asked himself many times why his son was on that plane. But, David Beamer added his own reply. "We know why," he said. "Todd and those newfound friends, newfound freedom fighters is what they were, [they were there to do] the right thing."
Americans have always done that. Throughout our history, Americans were there to do the right thing, on fire to do the right thing.
Americans who fight for freedom in Afghanistan are not just fighting for Americans. They are fighting—and they are dying—so that the people of a tortured nation that has lost a million lives to war in the last decade can go back to their homes and their schools, and have a chance for what we have here in America.
Today, with sadness, we mourn the 38 souls we’ve lost in this campaign—but with joy we recall that through their sacrifice, freedom may once again have a new birth. They are helping build, what President Bush has called, "a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror."
So, as we recall what it means to be an American, why we are willing to fight for what America means, we should also remember that it isn’t just about us, but about what America stands for. America stands for enduring values … the right of people to govern themselves, to live in safety and security, to enjoy peace and prosperity, to find and to worship God in their own way.
Earlier today, on a peaceful beach in Normandy, President Bush paid tribute to another generation of young men who fought for those same values at another desperate moment in history, when freedom and justice hung in the balance.
Back then, there were others who thought we were weak. But, on those beaches, young men, young men much like Vince Tolbert and Todd Beamer—men who were good sons, good fathers, good citizens—gained a foothold. And those unexpected heroes set about saving the West so that freedom and the democratic values we all cherish could prevail. [Applause.]
In his remarks today, President Bush reflected on what they did there, on a beach that was once dense with the instruments of war, along with the living and the wounded and the dead. And he recalled the words of one G.I., who, reflecting back on the service of his youth, said: "I feel like I’ve played my part in turning this from a century of darkness into a century of light."
As the son of an immigrant, I know how fortunate we are to live in this country guided by the great light of freedom, how blessed we are to live free, free from persecution and fear, for each one of us to be able to say, "I am an American." [Applause.] And how fortunate—how deeply fortunate—we are to know that there are those who have been willing to risk death for that.
I have long believed that America’s greatest power, even more than our vast resources, more than the beauty we see all around us, more than our great melting pot and our military might, America’s greatest power is what it stands for.
George Washington knew that. Abraham Lincoln knew that. Lincoln concluded as a young man and firmly believed until his death, that this nation, our system of government "holds out," as he said, "a great promise to all the people of the world for all time…."
Now we face another hour of great testing. And yes, liberty, our way of life is once again in peril. And we remind ourselves once more who we are, what we stand for, and what we are fighting for.
And we hear again the words spoken by President Bush. Words we will not forget. Words for those of us who live or work nearby or who, tomorrow, or sometime soon, will go home after being drawn to this hallowed ground, ground where heroes sleep: "We will not waiver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail." [Applause.]
God bless you. God bless the men and women who serve our country so faithfully and so well. And God bless America. [Applause.]