By: The Plain Dealer Editorial Board
Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous dispatch summarizing the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813 — “We have met the enemy and they are ours” — is widely familiar. Victories tend to produce better quotations than defeats.
But this Memorial Day, almost 200 years after Perry slammed the door on the British attempt to invade the United States from what was then its northwest frontier, offers a fitting moment to reflect on the power of a few words uttered in defeat.
That was the final order spoken by Perry’s mortally wounded friend and fellow officer, Capt. James Lawrence, minutes before a British boarding party overwhelmed and defeated the crew of the U.S. frigate Chesapeake on June 1, 1813.
Perry had the phrase sewn into his battle flag. When the Battle of Lake Erie began, it was flying from the mast of his flagship — a 493-ton brig christened the Lawrence, in memory of the defeated captain.
When Perry’s ship was disabled by enemy fire, he transferred his flag to the brig Niagara, fought on, won the battle and immortalized both his own phrase and Lawrence’s.
This is a day to recall, in a special, formal way, the immortal memories of mortal men and women — Americans who gave their lives in defense of this nation.
Lawrence’s final order speaks, in a sense, for all of them. From Lexington to Lake Erie to Chapultepec to Gettysburg to Belleau Wood to Midway to Inchon to Khe Sahn to Kuwait to Fallujah, American Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen have always fought for something larger than themselves.
They fought for the American ideal. They died to keep us free. We dare not hold their sacrifice cheaply.