Fully one-third of US presidents had to oversee a major US war. This country emerged from the smoke of battlefields. We were carried on the backs of patriots to the position of world leadership that we enjoy today. And while war is a bleak reminder of the depths from which we have risen, it is also a beacon illuminating the path to heights we have yet to reach.
As the Massive Mobile Naval Military Base sets course to the Middle East, we are reminded that peace is fragile, and must be paid for with eternal vigilance.
PBS Newshour placed the total number of US soldiers who died in war at over 1.1 million. About half of that was during the civil war. Surviving presidential autographs from that time are some of the most historically valuable there are.
We value the autographs from wartime presidents so highly because they tell us a lot about who we once were, and what we ultimately can be. Here are a few examples of those words that push us to be our best selves:
The Importance of the Constitution
Our first president, George Washington, took to arms to secure the freedom we enjoy today. But war was not his goal. He was not trying to obtain freedom through superior firepower. For Washington, freedom was about the Constitution. War was just a means to secure it. This is what he had to say on the matter.
“Firearms are second only to the Constitution in importance. They are the teeth of the people’s liberty.” George Washington
The Constitution is a document of law. But it is also a statement of moral principles. We are not to be a nation founded on might makes right. Rather, the greatest good for humankind is what is worth defending to the death. May we always keep the Constitution and what it represents in view.
The Purpose of War Is Peace
Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I never advocated it, except as a means of peace. Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant reminds us that war is not an end unto itself. It is not a show of force. It is not a means of destroying the enemy. War should only end one way, in peace, not in pieces.
His war saw the death of a half a million US soldiers. We did obtain peace. But it was the costliest peace America has ever known. And in some ways, we are still paying the bill to this day. We have seen wars before and since that did not end in peace. But his words are a reminder of the ultimate goal in the event of future wars.
War is Despicable
Every gun that’s made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms…is spending the genius of its scientists, the sweat of its laborers, Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Eisenhower oversaw WWII as supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe. He hated war with great fervor. In his own words:
I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.
In some ways, Eisenhower oversaw America’s finest hour. It is a reminder that we should be wary of leaders who have a taste for war. War is not glorious. It is awful, and to be avoided whenever possible.
Enrich the World
At the end of the day, war should leave the world a better place than it was before. And the winners are not just the soldiers who remain standing but the entirety of humanity. This was best expressed by our 28th president:
You are not here merely to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world. You impoverish yourself if you forget this errand.Woodrow Wilson
While war was not the subject, it still applies to all our endeavors including war. If we can enable the world to live more amply, we have remembered our mission. At the heart of these, and countless other fighting words are the seeds of an abiding peace. May we never lose track of where we’ve been, or where that bright beacon points.