Although Lincoln’s prose is magisterial, its might depended in no small part on the ability of the Union Army to achieve battlefield victories in 1864 and 1865. In this case, the pen was only as powerful as the sword.
Lincoln issued a rallying cry on the Gettysburg battlefield in November 1863:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…
The “unfinished work” that Lincoln referred to was begun voluntarily in 1861 when the government and tens of thousands of citizens chose to end the rebellion militarily. Lincoln and others had every reason to doubt as to whether the nation would find the strength in 1863 and beyond to see the “great task” to its successful conclusion? The outcome would ultimately determine whether the dead had indeed “died in vain.”
Is it possible for Americans today to appreciate the sense of uncertainty that hung over the yet-to-be completed cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863 given how disconnected we are from the sacrifices of so many of our military men and women over the past ten years?
To what extent does Lincoln’s hard truth apply to our own wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did these men and women die in vain? Perhaps we shouldn’t look too closely.
Ultimately, Lincoln’s words serve as a reminder of the responsibility of every citizen when our nation utilizes its military and places our fellow Americans in harm’s way.