May 31st, 2010
12:53 PM ET

Letters to the President #497: "The Survivor's Pledge"

On this Memorial Day, fallen troops will be remembered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and places all over the globe where Americans have served. And they will be noted too, in my daily letter to the president.

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

Some years ago I was honored to attend a reunion of the survivors of the USS Arizona; that great warship destroyed in the sneak attack by the Japanese which inexorably drew our country into World War II. They were an impressive group. Good humored, largely successful in their lives after their service, and bound to each other by stark memories of a calamity that no Hollywood movie can ever match.

I discovered among them a good measure of what some might call survivor’s guilt, but what these veterans might more likely refer to as simple respect for their fallen comrades. Many of them spoke with tender affection for all who were lost that day and how they have lived their lives since ever mindful of those missing souls; taking their challenges and rewards, victories and disappointments with a measure of wistfulness; knowing that, but for luck, fortitude, or providence, they too would have found a watery grave.

I think of them often when Memorial Day comes around, just as I think of all the veterans and their families I have met over the years whose lives have been marked by the loss of a loved one in war. It has made me mindful of my own responsibility to those lives, and I must say it consists of a great deal more than hanging the flag out front (which we do,) or thinking of them when I look at the date on the calendar (which I do,) or feeling sorry for their families and friends (which I do, too.)

I remind myself that they made a difficult choice to serve our nation, whatever their motivation at the time, and somehow it came down to a calamitous moment in which I am sure they might have preferred to be anywhere else; as the poet, Alan Seeger, an American who fought and died in World War I, noted in his famous poem, “God knows 'twere better to be deep pillowed in silk and scented down, where love throbs out in blissful sleep, pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath, where hushed awakenings are dear..” (I also, as an aside, read that poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” virtually every Memorial Day.