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Memorial Day is a solemn and sad occasion honoring the American soldiers who gave their lives in war. But it is also a hallowed day — because the values those men fought to defend form the essence of our country: freedom and the rights of the individual.

The United States has never fought a war of conquest. The Revolutionary War was waged to gain freedom from the tyranny of King George. The Civil War was fought to end slavery in this country. The Americans defended liberty in World War II against the murderous collectivism of the Nazis. Even the Spanish-American War was fought against the brutal colonialism of the Spanish Empire.

The greatest soldiers of American history knew that freedom was sacred; no price paid on its behalf was a sacrifice. George Washington, as commander of the Continental Army, led the way. Despite his years of struggle and the hardships endured, Washington refused pay for his service. He used his own fortune to help finance the war effort, and, when the Revolution was won, took no money from Congress to help with the much-needed rebuilding of his Mount Vernon estate.

Gen. Washington recognized that freedom from tyranny was its own reward. His stirring words to Joseph Reed make clear his (and his compatriots’) reasons for waging the Revolutionary War: “The spirit of freedom beat too high in us to submit to slavery.”

Douglas MacArthur — another great leader — as military commander of occupied Japan, made it his highest priority to establish the post-war Japanese government and economy on the principle of political/economic freedom. The relative liberty and prosperity of Japan’s newly semi-capitalist system owes much to MacArthur’s wisdom and efforts.

Observing the fruits of his labor, he stated before Congress that America’s former enemies had “from the ashes left in war’s wake, erected in Japan an edifice dedicated to the primacy of individual liberty, freedom of economic enterprise and social justice.”

Gen. MacArthur recognized that part of America’s real victory in the Pacific was Japan’s vastly increased freedom.

Regular American soldiers have fought and died for freedom around the globe. South Korea today is free, not a part of North Korea’s murderous dictatorship, because U.S. soldiers helped defeat Communist aggression in the Korean War. Similarly, as long as American soldiers fought in Vietnam, the Communists were held at bay, unable to achieve their goal of conquest. Only after American politicians pulled all U.S. military personnel out of Vietnam in 1975 did the country fall, and the Communists, then unrestrained, enslaved the Vietnamese.

To appreciate fully the virtue of our soldiers we must remember what freedom means. It means we can choose our own fields of study, our own careers, our own spouses, the size of our families and our places of residence. It means we can speak out without fear regarding any issue — including governmental policy — choose our values, without interference from the state.

Freedom is based on the inalienable right of each individual to pursue his own goals and his own personal happiness. During America’s Revolutionary Period, one New Hampshire state document summed up the thinking of our Founding Fathers regarding an individual’s rights, “among which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protecting property; and in a word, of seeking and obtaining happiness.”

This is the principle — and the spirit — that our soldiers defend.

The meaning of Memorial Day is particularly pressing today when the United States is engaged in a war against fanatics who represent the extreme of intellectual, religious and political suppression. Freedom is unknown and utterly alien in the countries that support terrorists. They feel threatened by our most cherished principles and institutions, and so they seek to destroy us.

What protects us is our moral courage and our military might. If the President has the moral conviction to permit our soldiers to wage war fully against our enemies, they will prevail, as they have so many times in the past. Once again, their blood and their lives, spilled and lost in defense of freedom, will not have been given in vain. On Memorial Day we solemnly and properly honor those heroes who have fought and died in defense of America’s freedom.

(c) 2005 Ayn Rand Institute. All rights reserved.

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Andrew Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the City University of New York. He lectures all over the world. He is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written numerous books, including his novel, A Dearth of Eagles, recently published and available from Amazon.