I was standing alone at the Korean War Veterans Memorial at the National Mall in mid-November. It was cold and after dark, so I wasn’t especially surprised that visitors were sparse as a I read the message inlaid on a wall of granite: “Freedom Is Not Free.” My Grandpa had served in the Korean War, so I made a special effort to see it. He was a funny, warm person, and it was hard to immediately imagine him in a war. He only ever told me about one experience from Korea— a particularly tense moment behind enemy lines.
That story doesn’t belong to me, and so I hesitate to share it, but it is my most personal reminder of the meme-cheapened expression that “freedom is not free.” Cheapened because I can almost not hear or see those words anymore without imagining a slow-motion American flag waving in the wind to the blare of some country twang. Cheapened because it is so routinely hi-jacked and weaponized by forces of partisan political manipulation instead of national camaraderie. Regardless, I was reminded that freedom, at home and abroad, sometimes requires military service and profound sacrifice, and my brief visit was an unexpectedly solemn experience.
As I closely examined the memorial in the dark, I was struck by the wreaths left leaning against a wall with attached messages of gratitude— they were from South Korea. As I lingered, I was struck by the few other visitors quietly paying respects at the memorial— they were all Koreans. Before I left I noted the north wall, listing the 22 members of the United Nations that contributed troops or medical support to the Korean War. These three meaningful features of my visit were best encapsulated by another inscription on the ground: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”
I had just walked the few minutes from the Lincoln Memorial, upon which is inscribed Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address where he provides a powerful rebuke of slavery. I was surprised to find that most of its visitors seemed to be foreign tourists and the area echoed with the sounds of various languages. These foreign visitors likely had no personal attachment to the way Lincoln saved our union. He is not an international icon for the preservation of the United States, but for the further-reaching contribution of ending American slavery. Our 16th President is a global symbol because he has come to stand for freedom and equality, ideals that transcend our nation but ones we have often been able to promote and closely associate with thanks to acts of Lincoln and other American leaders and advocates like him. These ideas, not simply power, made America great.
I was reminded that America is not great just because brute, military strength. It is not that we are rich. It is not that we are able to live in relative safety. The United States is not so unique in those attributes, especially when we consider all the nations of history. What makes the United States great and unique is that, at our best, our actions are guided by a sense of human dignity and tolerance at home and abroad. Our most admirable guiding principles resonate with people all over the world. As a result, our place in human history is most meaningful because we are one nation composed of many: a melting pot. At our best, we are a nation where anyone regardless of gender, race, or beliefs can find freedom and opportunity. And while we have forever struggled with that identity — twisting and bending our way down Martin Luther King’s moral arc toward justice inscribed on his own nearby memorial — the true threat to American greatness is stepping away from global moral leadership by betraying our commitment to human rights and tolerance which defines our nation’s value.
The real cost of democracy is not as simple as just military strife and sacrifice. The real cost is a fidelity to tolerating people who are different than you which must supersede the tribal impulse to smother and discredit everything unfamiliar. Differences in beliefs, religion, race, color, gender, orientation and so on is not only the cost of American freedom, but also the only durable reason why the United States is a special place and its most powerful moral currency. The real cost is accepting that our country is strong and great because we have compassion across differences, and that strong American leadership is anathema to cruelty, intolerance, and manipulative fear-mongering across these potential points of division. The real cost is realizing that diversity and democratic inclusion and opportunity is foundational to our unique, powerful place in the world, even if — no, not if, but because — it means encountering and learning to coexist with beliefs and lifestyles that are different and at times opposite to our own.
If we strip these things away — diversity, tolerance, inclusion, equal access to opportunity, intellectual and religious freedom, commitment to human dignity and so on— we may still be powerful, we may still be rich, but we would not be great. Our freedom and democracy have been preserved many times on the backs of the profound sacrifice of men and women serving in our military. Our service members deserve respect and gratitude for the willingness to answer that call, a sacrifice we should remember beyond the creation and sharing of partisan memes. Likewise, we cannot forget that military sacrifice is meaningful because it stands for the preservation of the democratic ideals that make the United States special. The flag is only meaningful because it is a symbol of our guardianship of those ideals. Living with these ideals is sometimes uncomfortable, but the alternative is to surrender the United States’ moral value. And the duty to maintain them belongs to all of us. When we step away from our commitment to those ideals via hatred, intolerance, or callous self-preservation and fear we take a step away from greatness and into the crowd.