Memorial Day… and science policy

Bear with me. These topics are connected. The link is sobering, but if we view it in the right light we can also find it uplifting! It should challenge and energize us all.

Memorial Day has a little bit of history which we should know. On this day we commemorate all those men and women who died while in military service to the United States. It was first enacted after the Civil War to honor both Union and Confederate soldiers (important detail!). After World War I it was extended to pay homage to Americans who died in all wars.

Of course, US climate being what it is, the weather on Memorial Day tends to be warm. And a three-day weekend lends itself to getting the kids out of the house for some family time, making a short trip, having friends over for barbecue. So there’s always a bit of celebration that maybe isn’t totally focused on the solemn origins of the Day. But here in DC, the laying of a wreath at Arlington, the Rolling Thunder, and other events help us stay mindful. Parades and other observances make a difference where you are too.

The essential of this day is that we acknowledge those who gave their lives. Giving your life is quite distinct from losing it. If I get drunk this evening, and on my way home drive into a tree, I lose my life. That’s regrettable. All life is of infinite value. But to give your life – to put yourself deliberately in the way of bullets or explosives so that others you love, and millions whom you don’t even know, might continue to enjoy a measure of liberty and democracy, freedom from  totalitarianism and aggression – that’s noble, that’s sacrificial, that’s the ultimate gift. And that’s who and what we honor – the people who made that conscious choice.

We say: we are enjoying this weekend and our lives here on Earth, here in the United States, because they gave what Lincoln referred to at Gettysburg as “the last full measure of devotion.” Sometimes we put ourselves in their shoes. We ask: How could they do that? If I had been there, would I have been able to do what they did?” We’re humbled.

Where does such bravery and sacrifice come from? We physical scientists find our equations silent on the subject. Evolutionary biologists and social scientists do a little better. They give us an answer – along the lines that survival of species favors those species whose individual members at least occasionally put the good of the group ahead of their self-interest. Sometimes it seems that animals lower on the scale are better at doing this than human beings. Consider ants. Or bees.

Suppose we could ask any of those soldiers, “why were you so brave?” What answer would they give? We actually know that we’d get a range of answers. We know this from listening to others, who did something equally daring and brave, but who lived to tell about it.

Some wouldn’t be able to give a cause. They’d say, “It happened so fast. I just did it. I was in the moment.” Some did it because they loved their friends, “I had to save the buddies in my unit.” Others would say, “Jimmy had died the day before. His heroism saved my life. I figured it was my turn.” Still others would do it out of a personal code of honor and integrity. “All my life I’d prided myself on doing the right thing.” Or duty. “It was my responsibility.” We also hear from another group of voices. “God loves me. I knew I could always count on Him.”

We civilians sometimes give our lives for noble causes as well. Touch a hot stove and you’ll withdraw your hand immediately, won’t you? That’s a reflex – an imperative of our biological makeup. But if your child is in a burning building, you’ll override that basic instinct. You’ll enter the building. The past month of tornadoes has given us such stories.

But “giving our life, versus losing it” can also be a lifelong thing, as opposed to an act of the moment. We speak of the armed services – some serve in the military throughout a career spanning decades. Environmentalists can give their lives to the cause of saving landscapes, or ecologies, or creatures. Think Rachel Carson, or Jacques Cousteau, or Jane Goodall, or John Muir. Men and women give their lives to public service: John Adams. Teddy Roosevelt. Harry Truman. Ted Kennedy. Everett Dirksen. Golda Meir. Margaret Thatcher. Some give their lives to humanity:  Mother Teresa. Jane Addams. Cesar Chavez. Martin Luther King.

And some give their lives to science. Galileo. Isaac Newton. Marie Curie. Jonas Salk. Baruch Blumberg. Einstein. Leo Szilard. Joanne Simpson.

[an aside, before going any further…notice you see only a handful of names above. Most are well-known, but not all. I didn’t make any attempt to put in a top ten. We could have filled in many more, couldn’t we? It’s the same with the soldiers. No names there either. But chances are good each of us has a relative, or more than one, we recall and celebrate on days like today, or Veterans Day, or D-Day. So please personalize this today. Substitute your own, favorite name. Is that person little known? So much the better. It’s all on you to remember him or her!]

Now that conscious giving of our lives over a long haul, rather than in an instant…that’s not so easy either, is it? To be faithful to an ideal or a set of values or a lofty goal day after day, year after year, through all the reverses and the difficulties…in a way that takes a special kind of courage as well as endurance. And there’s not much glory or glamour in such perseverance. The folks I named accumulated not a little recognition for what they did. But they’re the exceptions! Many more lived and died in obscurity.

Not everyone does it. Many of us fall away. After a while, we give our lives to something else – often something less. We opt for comfort, or for safety. Or for ease.

Why go through all this? Because scientists are entering a time of special challenge and opportunity. Over the next period of years we get to find out what we’re made of. We’re going to be challenged not just intellectually, by our scientific discipline, though that will be demanding enough. Our courage and our values, not just as scientists, but as human beings, are going to be strained to their limits. We’re going to be tested spiritually.

More later, on this Memorial Day weekend. In the meantime, enjoy the barbecue. Honor the fallen.

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