A Veterans Day Message to our Younger Generation
Address to Rhinebeck, NY Central School System by
"Dr Sam" Bierstock
Author of lyrics to "Before You Go" tribute to our aging veterans
Scheduled for Veterans' Day ceremonies
November 10th, 2009
I imagine that a lot of you are sitting in this auditorium thinking "Here I am having to sit through a ceremony watching a bunch of grey haired old people on stage, - guys with canes, and walkers and wheelchairs, and older women in ancient uniforms.
I want to ask you something. How many 16 year-olds do we have here? 17? Do we have anyone who is 18?
Now I want every one of you to imagine that instead of the older men and women that you see on this stage, your 16, 17 and 18 year old friends are standing up here. Because that is what these men and women were when they went off to fight for our country. They were not one bit different from your juniors and seniors. Some of them even lied and tried to get into the fight when they were 14 or 15.
Now I want to tell you about how they fought. They didn't have cell phones and email to keep in touch with their families when they were half way around the world in jungles and deserts and at sea. In fact, they'd be lucky to get a letter home, or receive one from home, 2 or 3 or 4 months after they were written. Their parents and sisters and brothers wouldn't know if they were killed or wounded for weeks or months after it happened - if at all. They didn't have satellite systems to tell them where the enemy ships and planes were. They didn't have night-vision goggles - when they fought at night the only way they could guess at what they were shooting at was from the flash of the weapons being fired at them. When they were on ships at sea, they could be blown to bits by submarines that they had no idea were watching them - and many times they were.
They didn't have laser guided missiles and bombs. When they went on bombing mission after bombing mission, they dropped large payloads of bombs in the hope that a few of them would hit their targets - and sometimes those bombs didn't even go off. They sent waves of planes to drop hundreds or thousands of bombs to hit their target, so hundreds of pilots and their crews were exposed to being shot down instead of the one plane it sometimes takes today to hit a target - that is if we use a plane at all rather than a ground-based missile. They didn't have robotic drones or satellites to fly over an area and tell them what the enemy was up to. If they got separated or lost in a jungle or in enemy territory, they did not have GPS systems to tell them where they were or how to get back to friendly territory - and when they fought on land it was often hand to hand and face to face - and it was kill or be killed.
This was not like the video games that some of you may enjoy from the comfort of your sofa or your bedroom where you blow off an enemy's head or hack off an arm. These guys lived and fought it. These guys are the real deal.
You may have learned that at a few points we could have lost WWII. Well, if we had, if you are black, or Catholic, or Jewish, or disabled - chances are you would not be sitting here because you would never have been born. The people these men and women fought lined up and shot Jews and Blacks and Catholics and Gypsies and disabled people - no matter what their age or infirmity. Their goal was to rid the earth of anyone other than themselves. Your parents and grandparents would have been killed if it were not for the old men and women you see here - who did their job at a time when they looked just like your classmates.
Others fought in Korea when our former ally Russia tried to take advantage of the post WWII period to expand communism - and so they fought to preserve the victory we attained in WWII. Some who look a little younger to you fought in Vietnam - a very unpopular war politically - much like the wars we are in today - but the difference is that when they came home they were not welcomed with open arms or supported while they were overseas fighting. The same people who were angry at our government for waging that war, spit on the men and women who fought it, and called them terrible and unforgiving names. Almost all of them just thought they were fighting for our country, and we let them down when they got home.
There may be veterans of other wars here as well, wars we fought in Somalia, Panama, Granada, Iraq and Afghanistan.
All of these men and women fought for something - and I really want you to think about this because you have a responsibility to them.
They fought so you could live your lives being able to "dis" the government, or the president, or be a Zen Buddhist or a Muslim, or tell everybody around you what you think on any subject. They fought so you would never see a tank in the streets (have any of you ever even seen a tank?) - or be afraid of every policeman you saw on the streets. And they fought so that you would have the opportunity to choose your government through your vote - and many of you are at, or are approaching the age, when you will have that right.
Recently, I watched a TV show when a reporter went into the streets at one of the country's leading universities and asked students he encountered at random very basic questions about our country, our history, and current events. How many justices do we have on the Supreme Court? Who is third in line of succession for the presidency? What is the name of the Speaker of the House? What countries are to the east and west of Iran? Where is the Gaza Strip or the West Bank? Where is Pakistan in relationship to Iran and Iraq?
Do you know that over 90% of the students could not answer one of these questions?
So, you either have, or are about to have, the right to vote, but what you do not have is the requirement to cast an intelligent, informed vote. That is your choice - and that is what you owe the men and women you see on this stage for what they went through on your behalf.
If you express an opinion on the war on terror, but you can't tell me where Afghanistan is, or who its rulers are, I don't want to talk to you because you don't have an informed opinion and I don't really care what you think. In fact, I wish you didn't have the right to vote at all - you didn't earn it and you failed in your obligation to people who lost lives and limbs for you in the past and are putting their lives on the line for you right now while I am talking to you.
Winston Churchill said, "The greatest argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter." In 2004, I stood in a voting line to cast my vote and I listened to what people were saying. "I'm voting for John Kerry because he is just so handsome!" or some such similar remark. Or "I am voting for George Bush because I think Laura Bush is just so wonderful". I wanted to physically pull them out of line - but that's not what our veterans fought for. They fought so each and every one of you can vote - and it is your obligation to decide if you want to be an informed voter or an ignorant voter.
Listen to your teachers. Learn about what is going on in the world. Go the extra mile and learn more if you feel you are not being taught enough. Be able to back up your opinions and conclusions with sound and accurate arguments that you yourself believe in - not what your friends have decided. Know our system of government and who is making the decisions for you. Check the authorship of what comes your way on the Internet to be sure it is valid information. Be informed.
In short - earn your right to vote by casting a well thought-out, reasoned, defensible vote that you can justify based on an intelligent informed decision that is your own. Don't be one of those kids who can't answer the most basic of questions about the country you live in and which provides you with all of the jewels of freedom that are so easily taken for granted.
That is the least you can do for the men and women you see on the stage before you. They put their lives on the line for you. Some of them have suffered the results for their entire lives. The biggest thanks you can give them is to take the rights they protected for you seriously. What you owe them is to care.