Thursday, Dec. 7, marks a solemn occasion. In Hawaii, halfway across the Pacific, they'll honor the thousands of Americans killed 65 years ago at Pearl Harbor on what President Franklin Roosevelt correctly called "a day that will live in infamy."
But closer to home, near a much smaller body of water, there's another place for us to remember heroes who've fallen in more recent wars.
Alongside the Illinois River in Marseilles (about 75 miles southwest of Chicago, down I-80) stands a memorial to the troops who've died in the Middle East since 1980. The granite wall is six feet high and 50 feet long and was erected by the motorcycling group Freedom Run (ilfreedomrun.org).
It contains the names of almost 2,500 service members. That includes those who died in Operation Desert One (the attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran), the terrorist bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon, Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the USS Cole bombing, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and the Iraq war.
One of the names is Corporal Brad Arms. He perished more than two years ago in Fallujah. Shortly before he died, Arms wrote to some friends to explain that he understood what he was fighting for. "When driving or walking through the small villages, the kids run out and cheer us on as an on-the-spot parade, but as we get to the market places we get only cold stares from the men over 20. It's the future of this country that will be different down the road," he wrote.
"As long as we can keep the younger generations open-minded, then we will win this war, even though the fruits of my labor will not be realized for many years when the children of this country now rule."
Arms laid out a future worth striving for. Today, though, it's unclear whether the United States has the will to build that future in Iraq.
Last month CentCom commander Gen. John Abizaid told students, "I think we are winning this fight." And President Bush recently told NATO leaders "I'm not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete. We can accept nothing less than victory for our children and grandchildren."
But those views flout the conventional wisdom. As the Louisville Courier-Journal editorialized after Bush's address, "No one else is talking about 'victory' anymore." In another example, newly elected Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who has a son serving in Iraq, told the president, "I'd like to get them [American troops] out of Iraq."
Of course, we can pull out of Iraq any time we choose. But that would consign that nation to a sectarian bloodbath many times more horrific than what we've seen to date.
Or we can choose to fight to win, to help build the country Corporal Arms wrote of and died to bring about.
No matter what we do in Iraq, the fact is that there will, unfortunately, be more names added to the wall in Marseilles in the months, years and decades ahead. As long as there's a United States, U.S. service members will be called to fight, and sometimes die, to defend and advance the cause of freedom worldwide. Our mission in the Middle East today should be to ensure that the troops already on the wall didn't die in vain, and that those added in the future don't, either.
Sixty years later, we remember World War II as a great victory, one that made the modern world possible. Such an outcome, however, didn't seem likely on Dec. 8, 1941. Then, with a huge part of our Navy underwater and our West Coast fearing imminent invasion, "realists" might have advised against going to war with a surging Japanese empire.
But the Americans of 1941 stood and fought. Tens of thousands of them died. And because of their sacrifices, hundreds of millions of Americans -- and Filipinos and Koreans and French and Italians and Germans and Japanese and more -- today live in freedom.
First appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times