Defending freedom is everyone’s responsibility
Maj. David Canady, 436th Communications Squadron commander
Commentary by Maj. David Canady
436th Communications Squadron
4/24/2012 - DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- A couple of weeks ago I took my son to see the movie Hunger Games. The movie portrays a nation in which a dictator has risen to power and its people have been split in two classes. The upper class lives a life of luxury and indulgence while the lower class is scattered across twelve districts and live in poverty; laboring in coal mines, power plants, fields, etc. providing every need of the upper class.
The movie centers on an annual event in which a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 years old are randomly selected as a tribute from their district to the government, serving as an enduring reminder of a failed rebellion that took place 74 years prior. After a weeklong training and assessment period in which each tribute is given odds of survival, all 24 tributes are released into a specially designed dome which houses a forest with all the features of a Hollywood set, such as: on-demand super beasts, insects and wildfires. This forest is the backdrop for a competition of combat and survival to the death...only one tribute can live. The tributes engage in a two-week nationally televised event which is broadcast live, 24-hours a day.
Each year the citizens of the lower class witness the ultimate demise of 23 children from their communities and for the upper class, this is each year's pinnacle event, complete with betting on winners, sponsorships and all of the television hype one would expect from a modern day reality series. My son could not believe that such a society could ever exist. Ironically and sadly enough the society the movie portrayed was not as sensationalized as one might think.
One of the downsides of living in a time when our nation stands as the world's only superpower is that many cannot appreciate the significance and power of our freedom. It is accepted as a given, making it easy to look at freedom through the lens of personal entitlement rather than the catalyst of our prosperity as a nation and the ultimate check and balance that keeps our nation from sliding into the chains of strife and oppression that are commonplace elsewhere in the world.
I grew up an Army brat, living much of my childhood in Germany during the Cold War. I spent most summers with my great grandmother, or Oma. She was born in Konigsberg, East Prussia and used to tell me stories of her childhood in the midst of World War I and being a young adult during World War II. Through these stories, she conveyed firsthand the best and worst of humanity, the fragileness of societies, and how quickly they can unravel. I gained a deep appreciation of not only the freedom we have as Americans, but equally important, the great responsibility each of us has as citizens in defending it. Although my summers with Oma were very insightful, I gained my greatest realization of how precious our freedoms are when I was 10-years old.
My family went on a trip sponsored by my dad's company during his tour at Wildflecken, Germany as a combat engineer. Each soldier's family was invited to travel to Observation Post Alpha (OP Alpha), a very familiar place of duty for the soldiers. OP Alpha was a small military compound along the fenced and heavily guarded border that divided East and West Germany, known as the Iron Curtain.
While there I had the opportunity to climb high into the cab of an observation tower and take a look at the terrain many believed would be ground zero of World War III if the US and Soviet Union went to war with one another. Staring across the border into East Germany, I was amazed at what I saw. In addition to the Iron Curtain, there was a series of three additional fences, one in front of the other and all outfitted with razor wire. The first was just a few yards from the observation tower I stood in. The last fence was several hundred yards further and the last one was about a mile beyond that.
We were told that at one time the land between the Iron Curtain and the first fence in the series contained a mine field that was removed as a condition of financial assistance provided to East Germany from the West. Between the first and second fence there were multiple guard towers, bunkers, and attack dogs that ran the fence line. The guard tower glass was mirror-like and the movement of troops between the towers and bunkers was very discrete, making it tough to assess who was where. In the East, soldiers who were from the same unit could not serve together on guard duty and personnel on guard duty were rotated so that the same people would not serve together on a routine basis. This kept guards from becoming comfortable with one another, decreasing the likelihood of defecting.
Beyond the last fence was a mock town occupied by soldiers who were staged there to present the illusion of a farm town to observers on the Western side of the border. In addition to all this, there was the constant maneuvering of attack helicopters and personnel in alert exercises on both sides of the border. Given all of this security, one might think the East was really worried about a US invasion. The fact was the security was not designed to keep the US and its allies out, but to keep their citizens from escaping...and obtaining freedom. This was most evident in what I saw between the second and third fence.
Off in the distance to the left of where I stood, there was a grass field with two crosses. One was half the height of the other but both were enormous making them visible for miles. I will never forget the answer to my question about why the crosses were there.
The crosses were erected to represent a father and his young son. After the border area was constructed this father tried to escape from East Germany to gain freedom in West Germany. In the process both of them were shot and killed. Given the security and fire power present at the border, they stood no chance of making it and the crosses stood in the spot where the father and son were executed as a reminder to anyone else who would consider escaping. The fact that the detail included a smaller cross for the young boy drove the message home.
Over the years I have reflected on this trip often and can only think of a few causes or pursuits important enough to sacrifice my own life and as the father of three precious children. I cannot imagine a situation in which I would sacrifice my child's life. For that dad, sacrificing his life and the life of his child for the hope of obtaining freedom, however slight, was better than living without it. This not only gave me a whole new context to the character and sacrifice of those who laid the foundation for our nation, it personally sealed my decision to serve in the military. While I would not trade my decision to serve, I believe the defense of freedom and realizing the blessings of liberty are not solely achieved in our nation's ability to project military power, but predestined in the character of our people.
It was not the experience of freedom that spurred the dad's thirst for freedom, for he had not experienced it. I'm almost certain it wasn't the sight of US soldiers that spurred him toward the razor wire fences and gunfire. It was the undeniable fruits of freedom that spurred that dad toward the border. As former President Ronald Reagan would say, the US was the "City on a Hill" and it shined so bright, that even a dad in communist East Germany could not help but see it. It is when we do those things that can only be accomplished by free people that freedom becomes so attractive. We do this when we as parents teach our children what is right and how to take a stand for those principles, when we as citizens take the time to make a difference in the lives of our neighbors and in our communities, and when we as leaders, regardless of our sphere of influence, set high expectations for those who follow us, dare them to dream of what can be, and invest in them to help make it reality.
Defense of freedom isn't just defending the nation from those who wish to do us harm, but the combined result of every citizen doing their part to make freedom so desirable that others would give their life to obtain it. It is no accident that our Constitution begins with, "We the People". Together, perhaps a Hunger Games type society will only be something you can see in a movie.