[Viewpoint] Lives given so our nation might liveThe story behind the tragedy of the Cheonan naval corvette unfolds even more slowly than its wrecked remains’ journey from the sea floor to the light of day.
The truth has to include the tears of the families of the 46 sailors lost in the sinking. The harrowing grief and emptiness that comes from the abrupt loss of sons and husbands is the heartbreaking part of the Cheonan saga.
At the other pole are the deplorable forces that conspired to obliterate a naval ship on a routine patrol along the maritime border with North Korea.
We depend on our military’s capabilities to uncover and disclose the roots of such a conspiracy. But the Cheonan tragedy also encompasses the truth of a nation - the reality of the ground on which our country stands.
A country is more than national hoopla over surprise triumphs in World Cup games or Winter Olympic competitions. We enjoy the gush of pride when we go overseas and spot billboards flashing distinctive Korean corporate brands and products on the highways from the airport to downtown centers.
But a national identity is much, much more. We get closer to the fundamental meaning of a nation when we think of the blood, sweat and tears of people who sacrificed themselves to build this country and the responsibility and passion behind their toil.
The tragedy of the Cheonan is a woeful reminder of this country’s need to embrace the wrenching pain of sudden losses - of beloved sons and husbands - while also sharing the euphoria of victorious returns home from the Olympic games.
That a country is built on successive sacrifices and devotions is a long-standing belief since ancient days. An ideal citizen has been one that is willing to die for his community and offer up his all for the well-being and perpetuity of society.
Love for the greater community is lauded as the pinnacle of all human values, and allowing oneself to be martyred for the community eclipses any individual’s prior sins. In ancient Sparta, known for its warrior culture, a mother handing a shield to a son heading for battle said: “Son, either return with this or on this.”
It was a cruel order to prove his loyalty to the state by forcing him to return alive with news of victory or die on the battlefield.
Athenian politician Pericles, in his famous Funeral Oration delivered at the public funeral for the casualties of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, praised the valor of the men who gave their lives for the sake of philopolis, or the greater good of the country.
American President Abraham Lincoln, dedicating a cemetery in Gettysburg during the Civil War, also paid homage to heroic deaths: “The brave men, living and dead who struggled here, have consecrated it .?.?. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
Our Cheonan sailors have also consecrated our sea and our entire land with the gift of the their valuable lives. Paying tribute to their honor would sanctify us, the survivors on this land. Roman poet Horace had cried “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” or “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”
We cannot be so extreme as to call death for the sake of one’s country “sweet,” and instead may replace the word with “brave” or “heroic.”
Heroic and honorable sacrifices such as those of the Cheonan sailors provide inspiration to all of us having a smaller part in sustaining this state. We should not just let these sailors, who represent such a profound truth of this country, lie in the Yellow Sea or the national cemetery, but instead bear them forever in our hearts.
To perpetuate a country, we need, as Plato preached in “The Republic,” the virtues of courage, wisdom, justice and moderation.
Our sailors on the Cheonan exercised courage to exemplify the “truth of a country.”
It is now up to us, the survivors, to repay them by playing our given roles with wisdom, justice and moderation to maintain their and this nation’s legacy.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of ethics education at Seoul National University.
By Park Hyo-chong