Today, honor fallen, but learn, too

May 27, 2012

As I returned to Washington a few days ago, the plane I was on flew down the Potomac River from the north to land at Reagan National Airport. Passing Arlington National Cemetery, the pilot made his final lineup for touchdown by dipping the right wing as if saluting those lying in eternal repose on the gentle slopes. Looking out, my thoughts turned to Memorial Day when Americans pay tribute to those who have died in defense of our nation and also to the fierce partisan political battles under way just across the river from Arlington.

On Memorial Day flowers and flags will be placed on the graves of the fallen across the nation and around the world in cemeteries at such places as Arlington, Belleau Wood and Anzio. Regardless of the religious symbol on the grave headstones above where we place the flag, or the branch of service represented, or the color or race or sex of that fallen hero, we honor them for their courage, their leadership and the unity of purpose they displayed in stepping forward when their country needed them.

One other thing we don’t ask about is whether that person was a Democrat, a Republican, an independent or none of the above. The important thing to remember is that each of them set aside their differences and worked together toward a common goal. It is this quintessentially American spirit that has enabled us to win wars, to overcome all obstacles in our path, to become the great nation that we are.

Recently it seems as though this spirit has been forgotten in our nation’s capital, across the river from Arlington, where Americans are not fighting alongside each other, but against one another using such phrases as “take no prisoners.” Refusal to compromise with “the other side” has become more important than reaching across the aisle to find solutions to win the battle against the very real challenges that face our democracy.

At the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, we face a fiscal cliff. This cliff is composed of the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the end of a 2 percent payroll tax holiday, the cessation of extended unemployment compensation and the start of mandatory across-the-board spending cuts — from $648.2 billion in defense spending to $472 billion — resulting from the failure of last year’s deficit-reduction super committee.

Both political parties agree these results will crater our fragile economic recovery — but instead of leading from the front and proposing solutions to these challenges that are important to all of us, too many politicians duck and cover in conformity to the dictates of their party. Conformity isn’t courage — it is cowardice.

Today it takes real courage and true leadership to achieve unity of effort, but too few recognize that loyalty to the common good is not disloyalty to party. Too often members of Congress blindly follow leaders who are looking to score political points, not solve our common problems. Individuals and groups like No Labels ( are reaching across the political spectrum trying to make our government work again. We need to support them.

This Memorial Day while we rest and relax with friends and family, let us reflect upon the fallen and honor their ultimate sacrifice. Let us learn from their example and emulate their courage, leadership, and the unity of effort our brave service men and women show every day.

Lt. Gen. John G. Castellaw, USMC (Ret.) commanded the Second Marine Aircraft Wing and served as the chief of staff of the U.S. Central Command. He is a citizen leader of No Labels and the president of the Crockett Policy Institute. He resides on the family farm near Alamo, Tenn.

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