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ELLIS: Why One WWI Memorial Is Especially Important This Veterans Day

Younger American generations don’t know wartime by experience. Since conscription even in peacetime ended in 1973, military service is voluntary, so most of us don’t know military service. Although the United States suffered a terrorist attack on 9/11, the year was 2001, and current college-aged students have no contemporaneous memory of living through even that kind of nationwide crisis and feeling the very real trust we have in our military for domestic protection. History honors our veterans of the United States Armed Forces and annually our grateful nation recognizes the devotion and selfless service our men and women give freely.

Today, a grateful nation will observe Veteran’s Day and honor our veterans who have served our country, including those who served in World War I, also known as the Great War, which lasted more than four years during 1914-1918. An estimated 4 million soldiers were mobilized and more than 100,000 Americans in the United States Armed Forces died and more than 200,000 were wounded during military service in the Great War. Unresolved political issues contributed to the beginning of World War II almost 20 years later, where more than 16 million Americans served and more than 400,000 were killed and nearly 700,000 wounded.

These are our men and women whose service and legacy of patriotism and fidelity to the principles of liberty enumerated in our Declaration of Independence made it possible to govern our country according to a new form of government—a limited government, whose sole legitimate responsibility is to protect and preserve individual rights of we the people. The significance of our American government and its dedication to liberty and freedom is celebrated throughout the year, and we cannot forget that the necessity and triumph of continuing our freedom and form of government is made possible only through the active participation of our United States Armed Forces.

Though younger generations benefit from peacetime, it is our obligation to recognize that benefit and understand the legacy that our military veterans continue to provide. I had the opportunity this weekend during Veteran’s Day to take my younger brother to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to actually see the documents of liberty that founded the United States. Because I’m a constitutional law attorney, I talk often about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and my brother has heard me talk about our founding documents many, many times. But there is a very real, tangible, personalized experience when you don’t just hear about something, and instead you stand in front of a piece of it and see it and therefore better understand history, which inevitably allows a better understanding of civil society today. There is a personal connection forged.

This personal connection is one of the key reasons that we have memorials. Tangible, erected monuments to allow a dedicated place to come, see, and remember the significance of history and those who shaped it. In 1925, The American Legion, which is now the largest veterans service organization in the United States, erected one such memorial. The “Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial” stands to honor 49 men who gave their lives serving in the United States Armed Forces in World War I.

The shape and design of the memorial is a cross, which the Gold-Star mothers chose to recall the crosses that marked the graves of so many Americans during the war, similarly to Arlington National Cemetery. There is a plaque above the names of the 49 soldiers that reads, “This Memorial Cross Dedicated To The Heroes of Prince George’s County Who Gave Their Lives In The Great War For the Liberty Of The World.” One on each of the four sides of memorial are the words “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage,” and “Devotion.”

This monument is one of many places in the country where we can reach out and touch a piece of history, engage it, and build a connection with our past. In an age of incredible peace and privilege, we can through monuments recall and honor the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for our present liberty.

Yet, this Bladensburg Memorial now stands in jeopardy of being removed or demolished. In February 2014, the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit claiming the memorial violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment solely because of its cross shape, somehow considering a cross shape to be an “establishment” of religion, which completely ignores the history and context of the memorial (and the context of the Establishment Clause). According to First Liberty, the group representing the American Legion to protect the memorial, the humanist group prefers “to erase the memory of our fallen servicemen than to see this memorial stand.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit bafflingly held that the memorial does violate the Establishment Clause, and now the case will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this term.

We need to care about our American armed services memorials. This case has nothing to do with somehow “establishing religion” because the shape chosen was the universal symbol of service and sacrifice, commonly used throughout the world to mark a grave at the time. This case has everything to do with honoring the families of these 49 heroes of Prince George’s County, recognizing the memorial that has stood for almost 100 years that, according to First Liberty, the families consider their sons’ gravestone.

How have we become so callous to the memory of men and women who gave their lives for our freedom and the living among us who still give their service that a federal court would actually require demolishing a solemn site over its cross shape? Will the humanists then turn their sights to Arlington National Cemetery and the hundreds of similar cross-shaped memorials that designate the actual grave sites of our fallen heroes?

This is what happens when a generation does not know with experience the times, the struggles, and the valor of our history. We should not attempt to rewrite or forget our history. The monument erected outside the National Archives reads “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.” For those of us who may not wear a military uniform, part of our eternal vigilance is to remember, protect, and honor the legacy of those who have defended our liberty with their lives and their service.

This and every Veteran’s Day, it is incumbent upon our generation of relative prosperity, peace, and security to take up the mantle of vigilance. Hopefully, our Supreme Court will do the same and allow the Bladensburg Memorial to stand and continue to serve as a reminder to every person that sees it of the valor, endurance, courage, and devotion of the 49 brave heroes in World War I and, in remembering them, remember all the heroes of our armed forces.

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