Opinion: Honor sacrifices of soldiers by building a better country

Peter Meijer

Cynicism is the easy path. I’ve spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan, on both sides of the blast walls. I know wars as a combatant fighting an enemy, and as an aid worker helping civilians. I know what it’s like to believe in a mission and have little but death to show for it.

And I also know that it’s easy to abandon hope and take warmth in anger. To quote George Carlin, “scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.”

American flags are posted in the ground ahead of a Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam War Memorial in Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019.

To me, Memorial Day is a reminder of that disappointment, or at least the threat of an idealist’s defeat. After the Civil War they called it "Decoration Day," with flowers laid on the graves of war dead. Michigan was one of the first states to declare it a holiday, back in 1871.

A day to honor the military men and women who gave their lives in service. A day that, even in a pandemic, will revert to holiday norms of boating and barbecues. A veteran in a cynical moment might complain that civilians, in casual celebration, dishonor a day meant for somber reflection.

That moment is fleeting, however, because what a disappointed idealist fails to grasp is that the joy and warmth, the fun and fellowship — that’s what the sacrifice was for. So that we may be ourselves, as Americans, as we choose.

There is a deeper meaning to uniformed service, to taking an oath and pledging to always put the mission first, even if it’s a losing one. Each sacrifice is not just in service to a strategic abstraction, but to something more profound. It’s sacrifice to the “unfinished work” President Lincoln spoke of at Gettysburg, to the “more perfect union” our Framers willed into being. The greats left us lofty rhetoric that encapsulates an ideal. Every American’s charge is to make something of it.

Veterans feel it, whether we admit it or not. Some of us come back and go into business, turning scars to strength by joining the economy and contributing sweat equity. Others seek a different path, though each gives in his or her own way. I’m proud to be among the cohort of veterans who, across the country and across party lines, are again rising up and answering the call of duty.

From school board to Congress, men and women running for office with a commitment to servant leadership — leadership that is selfless, values-driven and above all, courageous. The kind of leadership that puts the interest of people over politics, and service before self. A leadership grounded in the courage to do what’s right, not what’s easy.

No plan survives contact with the enemy, and no idealism can survive long in our politics. But the wellspring I draw from, the fire that keeps me going in my race to represent west Michigan in Congress, is in the repayment of a debt that compounds with every life lost in service.

Peter Meijer

On Memorial Day, I don’t think of those who gave all with sorrow, or cynicism. Instead, I think of what we need to do to build a republic that will, one day, be worthy of the sacrifices made in her name.

Peter Meijer is a Republican running for Congress in west Michigan. He served with the Army in Iraq from 2010-11. and worked in Afghanistan as a conflict analyst from 2013-2015.