November 13, 2020

On Veterans Day, I spoke at the dedication of Patriot’s Plaza on the campus of the University of South Dakota. This memorial honors all who have served our country, while highlighting the three USD alumni who have received our nation’s highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Captain Joe Foss was the leading fighter ace in World War II, personally shooting down 26 enemy aircraft at Guadalcanal. Colonel Bud Day was an accomplished Vietnam War pilot who offered maximum resistance to his captors as he was interrogated and tortured for almost 6 years. Captain Arlo Olson was a hero of the WWII Italian campaign, leading his troops in multiple harrowing engagements with the Germans.

The Medal of Honor citations and the official military records of these three men contain inspiring phrases like “outstanding heroism,” “personal bravery,” “incredible courage,” “inspiring leadership,” “intrepidity,” and “conspicuous gallantry.” This soaring language is particularly noteworthy coming from the U.S. Armed Services, which are more known for their dry, boring language than for flowery poetry and hyperbole.

Even if the military isn’t known for overwrought language, politicians are. Many phrases and words are used as though public office holders are deployed on the front lines of armed conflict, which of course we aren’t. Politicians act as though every vote is an “act of courage,” because “we are at war” with the House or the Senate. Members of Congress proclaim that “they are the last bastions of defense” who are “throwing bombs” as they “take casualties” while “battling enemies.” This is the language of the modern political battlefield.

Their language may be war-like, but too often the behavior of our elected officials is quite unlike that of our Marines, sailors, soldiers, and airmen. There are many reasons to cherish Veterans Day, but one of the most important is that it reminds us of the selflessness, dedication, patriotism, and honor of those who have served. How much our politicians could learn from Colonel Day, Captain Foss, and Captain Olson.

As I noted, Joe Foss was America’s top fighter pilot. In World War II he was known as the “Ace of Aces.” His Japanese counterpart was Suburo Sakai, the leading ace of the Imperial Japanese Navy. In dogfight after dogfight Foss and Sakai and their colleagues downed enemy planes and fired at one another.

After watching Japanese pilots like Sakai kill his closest friends and try to kill him, Joe Foss could have been forgiven for hating Suburo Sakai with his whole heart forever. That’s not the way of a true hero, however.

As I was rereading Foss’s excellent autobiography about his time as South Dakota Governor, head of the American Football League, and head of the National Rifle Association, I noticed a photo toward the back of the book of Foss in his later years alongside a Japanese gentleman. Foss notes that the two of them were “the best of friends” for years.

The best friend in that picture is Japanese ace and former archenemy Suburo Sakai. Joe Foss was a tough man, but he was also an incredible example of grace, love, forgiveness, and friendship.

I’m glad Patriots Plaza is on USD’s campus as an inspiration. For decades to come it will remind future teachers, police officers, accountants, nurses, researchers, and business owners (and perhaps even politicians) of how to properly live life and honorably serve our country.