For most of my friends and acquaintances, normal life and normal work came to a sudden halt on September 11—and stayed on hold for a solid month. Projects we had begun beforehand, long-term goals that were still relevant and important, were dropped. Everyone I know had the same reaction: what we were doing before September 11 seemed trivial, unimportant, meaningless. How can you go about your normal business, when thousands of other Americans just like you, going about their normal business, have just been murdered without reason or warning?
Then there came a day, in early to mid-October, when I noticed a change almost equally abrupt. I was greeted one morning by a small flood of phone calls and e-mails from authors and business associates following up on the projects that had been forgotten a month before. I noticed, with some surprise, that this was the same day I had already planned to call them. We didn't talk about it at the time, but it was clear we all felt the same way. It was as if a weight had been lifted, we now knew it was safe to live again, and we were ready to get back to work.
I was struck by the fact that so many of my friends and colleagues seemed to feel the same way at exactly the same time. But then I realized what caused it: a few days earlier, President Bush had announced the first air strikes against Afghanistan.
This underscored for me, unforgettably, how much we owe to our soldiers, sailors, and airmen. We cannot do our work unless we know they are doing theirs. We do not have the freedom to live our lives, unless they are there risking their lives to protect that freedom.
In the sloppy terminology so typical of today, it is common to attribute the courage of our soldiers to "self-sacrifice." But this misses the enormous difference between our soldiers and the malevolent fanatics on the other side, who declare that they want to die because they "love death." American soldiers do not go into battle because they love death. They go into battle because they love freedom. They love the liberties we enjoy and the prosperous and benevolent society that these liberties make possible. And they realize that someone has to fight to defend all of this.
Our soldiers do not want to die, and they do not expect to die; they know they are far better trained and better armed than their adversaries. But they know that some of them will die, and they believe that freedom is worth that risk. Here is how the family of Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, the first American soldier to die in Operation Anaconda, expressed it: "He made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that everyone who calls himself or herself an American truly has all the privileges of living in the greatest country in the world."
The more personal motives of American soldiers can be seen in the kinship they feel with the firefighters and policeman who died at the World Trade Center—as seen in the helicopter pilots in Afghanistan who pasted the insignia of the New York police and fire departments onto the sides of their ships. I have observed that soldiers, police, and firemen all share a fierce kind of pride in the knowledge that when disaster strikes, they do not have to hope that someone else will come to the rescue—because they are the ones who have the skills, the training, and the courage to deal with any threat. Shortly before his death, anticipating the risks he was about to face, Neil Roberts wrote to his wife: "I loved being a SEAL. If I died doing something for the Teams, then I died doing what made me happy. Very few people have the luxury of that."
And very few nations have the privilege of having soldiers like this to defend them. Let's take the time this Memorial Day to express our gratitude to the soldiers who have died—and to those who are still fighting to protect our freedom.