Memorial Day is a powerful time to reflect on a question essential to citizenship: What is duty to country, and how is it relevant to our lives today?
How often have we pondered the dimensions of duty to our nation, much less spoken about it to our children? Odds are not much. According to Google Ngram Viewer, use of the word “duty” is down 25% since 1988 (the year I joined the Army) and down by a factor of three over the last 100 years. So, it’s not surprising that in our “me-centered” culture, the concept of duty is becoming increasingly unfamiliar. Where do we look for guidance and inspiration?
Steven Pressfield’s historical fiction novel “Gates of Fire” captivatingly illustrates how duty can transmute from obligation to honor, from a vision of the present to an investment in the future. It’s the story of the Battle of Thermopylae and the 300 Spartans — along with roughly 7,000 other Greeks — who chose to stand and die, giving Greece precious time to organize a defense against the invading Persians. I’m sure many Greeks initially acted out of what we commonly consider duty, or perhaps a desire to avoid shame or to fulfill the requirements of the role — soldiers are expected to fight, after all.
But surely this most elemental form of duty alone can’t explain their decision to fight to the death. Every soldier knows they’re taking a risk in war, but the Greeks at Thermopylae knew this was a suicide mission. Why, then, did they choose to lay down their lives for their country?
It was love. Love for the men on their right and left who were willing to die for them. Love for the freedom their sacrifice would bequeath to their families and their countrymen. And midwife to this sacrifice born of love was the hope that their example would inspire future generations to bear the heavy burdens that freedom demands.
This is how they transformed duty from obligation to the sublime, from an act that shaped not only their present, but also spoke to ages hence. This is duty to country in its most shining and unalloyed form. Some 2,500 years later, we can still draw inspiration from this noble and multi-layered example of duty by serving the defense of our nation in ways large and small. After all, our freedoms stand on the foundation of our armed forces. This is the lesson at the heart of Memorial Day.
Few know that we are facing a national security crisis whose remedy lies in reinvigorating a dedication to duty among our youth. The Army missed its recruiting goals last year by about 15,000 soldiers. That’s roughly the size of one division. They’ll miss their recruiting goal again this year. Let that sink in. We’re running short one division a year when we only have 10. How many more years until our Army is too small to be effective? This major security threat is emerging just as an era of geopolitical power struggles intensifies.
There are many potential reasons for the decline in enlistments. Fewer than 1% of Americans volunteer to serve in uniform, so many Americans simply don’t know anyone who served. Basic civic education in high school along with exposure to the military as a potential career path has also fallen over the last few decades. And, certainly, worsening political divisions are a factor.
However, just as the Spartans did in her time of need, America’s youth must step forward in greater numbers to serve our nation in uniform. All Americans can be part of the solution by using our voices and influence to encourage a renewed sense of duty to country across this great land. To lift, like Sparta did, a commitment to service in uniform to rank among our highest national values. Advocate for military service to your communities, to your schools, and especially to your children. From those to whom much has been entrusted, much is expected. And all Americans have been abundantly blessed. Let’s rekindle our nation’s sense of duty — it’s our honor and privilege to do so.
David Kim, Military Times’ 2022 Veteran of the Year, is a combat veteran, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and father of a son and a daughter in the U.S. Army.