The following essay took third prize in the inaugural contest sponsored by the Admiral Callaghan Society.
The award ceremony was held April 26, 2012, in the Carlin Commons.
The First Step
by Deanna Beaman ’12
When asked to define what they would consider the “ultimate sacrifice,” most people firmly respond with the sacrifice of one’s own life. It’s a heroic notion; the surrender of existence in order to save a loved one, a stranger, or a country is unquestionably one of the most selfless courses of action conceivable. However, as a young woman among a generation about to enter the world with the position of responsibility and power, I must force myself to peel back the layers of romanticism and ask myself what truly lies at the heart of serving others. Death is certainly a powerful and dramatic expression of love and sacrifice – and it is usually recognized as such. Over the years, countless memorials, holidays, and remembrances have emerged to mark the collective sacrifices and devotions of the nation. But what about those who serve without acknowledgement or public approval? To me, the “ultimate sacrifice” is to live in the service of others – even in the face of alienation and punishment, to enduringly assume the role of leader to ease the burden for future generations, often by protesting and challenging the injustices of society.
True sacrifice, by definition, occurs without the expectation of positive legacy. However, this idea of “ultimate sacrifice” as a way of life raises a critical question: what justifies the choice to devote one’s self and reputation to an unappreciative environment? Certainly there must be some foundational commonality that drives these renegades of service – especially given how history is woven with the innovations and successes of those who lived for a cause in the face of adversity. From Mahatma Gandhi to the Tianamen Square Protester, there is an innate devotion among those who perform that “ultimate sacrifice” – a devotion to contribute to the betterment of an abstract future generation. Those who hold consistent with their beliefs, those who emerge as the facilitators of change, those who speak truth to power regardless of whether that power is legitimate or not, sacrifice themselves to the risk of destruction under that power in order that they may improve the situation for the entirety of their nation. President John F. Kennedy referred to the call to action during the “hour of maximum danger.” By subjecting themselves to persecution, those who devote themselves to service not only shorten the time span of that “maximum hour of danger,” but also prevent the likelihood of reoccurrence for future generations. Arthur Miller achieved it through his plays; Martin Luther King achieved it through peaceful protest; Rosa Parks achieved it through civil disobedience – all subjected themselves to punishment for the essential task of facilitating the first step.
Unfortunately, we cannot live in a society composed entirely of Martin Luther Kings, Rosa Parks, and Arthur Millers; a select few martyrs must shoulder the burdens of their actions for the sake of promoting a shift in societal trajectory. Nonetheless, those who labor without seeking reward inspire a veritable society of service through the trickle-down effect that infuses the notion of sacrifice into society. During the climax of World War II and the height of Japanese-American racism, the men of the all-Nisei 442nd Infantry Regiment battled their way into the position of the most highly decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces – all the while with the majority of their loved ones imprisoned in internment camps. Despite the contradictory treatment from their country, the 442nd Infantry Regiment fought not only to demonstrate their loyalty to America but also to express their outrage at their former Emperor and his militarism – truly “going for broke.” Throughout World War II and the existence of the Japanese-American infantry, no single individual ever spoke out to claim leadership or recognition. They remained a self-reliant web of anonymity – all the while working towards the betterment of those other than themselves. Without intending to, the loyalty of the Japanese-Americans proved that the unnamed and unrecognized could achieve just as much of an impact as those that history remembers.
The French Essayist Charles Du Bos stated, “The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” In light of this observation, the idea that one’s sacrifices today could potentially result in effects too great to even comprehend is more than reason enough to contribute to “the energy, the faith, the devotion…[that] will light this country and all who serve it.” Some seek out the opportunity to give of themselves, and others face the gravity of the ultimate sacrifice without warning; the common thought that binds those who answer that call to service is simply a profound certainty in the rightness of their actions, irrespective of the personal costs involved.