The wind blew a cold breeze across the rows of white grave markers spread across the gentle hillside. At the top of the slope, a marble pillar rose to the sky in memorial of the men and women who gave their lives in Italy during the Allies’ push from Sicily to the north as World War II dragged on.
The Florence American Cemetery and Memorial is a sobering reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by 4,402 men and women sent to war on foreign turf by a country that stood for something worthwhile. “Never forget,” the memorial reminds. “Remember me,” beg the markers of Americans who are forever part of Italian soil. The Italian government – grateful for the effort in its peoples’ behalf – granted 70 acres to the United States in perpetuity so future generations would remember.
From Texas to Massachusetts, New Hampshire to California, South Dakota to Louisiana, the names of the dead are etched on a marble wall overlooking the rows of individual graves. Sitting in the tiny reception hall reading about the people whose bodies rest here, we are joined by a young couple who noticed the memorial from the autostrada. Curious, they pulled off to investigate. She was American, from Florida, originally, now living in Switzerland with her Swiss boyfriend.
They, too, were humbled by the memorial, overwhelmed by the size of the cemetery and the sheer number of lost lives. They’d been to Normandy, too, and we shared stories of what that felt like compared with our own experience in the fields of Flanders and northern Belgium, where World War I graves dot the landscape for miles.
It’s important to remember, they said.
It’s the least we can do.
As we travel the world and feel the change of how the US is perceived, I think our leadership has forgotten. Maybe we all have.
You, members of Congress, have forgotten.
You, judiciary, have forgotten.
You, business leaders, have forgotten.
You, media, have forgotten.
Even you, distracted, disenfranchised and disinterested public, have forgotten.
We’ve forgotten what it was like to have a collective national soul that stood for something far more valuable than our individual wants, needs and inclinations. We’ve forgotten what it feels like to be committed to the principles of justice, fairness and goodness, having forsaken these core values in deference to quests for power, dominance and consumption driven by greed.
Standing in this desolate place, surrounded by the peacefully grim reminder of people from across the US who, called to duty, gave so selflessly of themselves, I am reminded of what it means to live by an honorable code of behavior that my dad, uncles and countless others of their generation knew far too well.
These men and women made a choice to fight. So, too, do we all face a choice: to change.
Our leaders have become purveyors of platitudes, deceitful ministers of catch phrases and manipulative promises intended to cede power to them. Once elected, they at best forget; at worst, ignore.
I’ve spent enough time around elected officials to know this probably unfairly paints politicians with a broad brush, but as Eldridge Cleaver warned: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
ISIL is growing more powerful. Students are murdered in Kenya. The Middle East continues along its unsettled peaceless path. Ukrainians die at the hands of people with the same bloodlines. Meanwhile, Americans continue to shoot another with alarming frequency while the gun lobby shrugs and clings stubbornly to its tired old principles.
Driving along FDR Boulevard in Zagreb, Croatia, I wonder: when was the last US president worthy of naming streets after in foreign lands? (Likely answer: JFK.) I wonder, too: where are the role models of this generation? Who are our true heroes?
What a wonderful time to demonstrate restraint, to adopt policies that embrace thoughtful influence and true leadership. What a time for the US to return to a position worthy of respect, admiration and honor.
What a time to remember.
What a perfect time to change.