Today, we celebrate Memorial Day. What does that mean? Unfortunately, for many citizens, it signifies just another three-day weekend, the beginning of the summer season, and an excuse for a weekend cook-out. Sadly, we have lost even the vestiges of the meaning of this holiday: a solemn time, serving both as catharsis for those who fought and survived, and to ensure that those who followed would not forget the sacrifice of those who died that the American republic might live.
Americans have forgotten how to honor their war heroes and to remember their war dead. As my friend and fellow Marine, “Bing” West observed several years ago in his remarkable book about Fallujah, No True Glory, stories of soldierly courage deserve “to be recorded and read by the next generation. Unsung, the noblest deed will die.”
What we now call Memorial Day was established by General John A. Logan’s “General Order No. 11″ of the Grand Army of the Republic dated May 5, 1868. This order reads in part: “The 30th day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers and otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan’s order served to ratify a practice that was already widespread, both in the North and the South, in the years immediately following the Civil War.
Memorial Day should cause us to ask why Americans are willing to fight and die. In his book, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, Glen Gray provided one answer: “Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.”
My own experience validates Gray’s observation about what men think about in the heat of combat: the impact of our actions on our comrades consumes our minds. For those who have not been to war and want to get a sense of the bond that binds comrades both in life and death, I always recommend the film “Saving Private Ryan” and the two HBO series “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” And I always make it a point to rewatch the splendid HBO film “Taking Chance” which more than anything else I can think of captures the essence of Memorial Day.
But although the individual soldier may focus on the particulars of combat, properly understood, Memorial Day permits us to enlarge the individual soldier’s view, giving broader meaning to the sacrifice that was accepted of some but offered by all, not only acknowledging and remembering the sacrifice, but validating it in the same way that Pericles, in his Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War, gave meaning to the Athenian dead by praising the excellence of Athens, and Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, gave meaning to the Union dead by praising that for which they fought.
Lincoln did so by giving universal meaning to the particular deaths that had occurred on that hallowed ground, thus allowing us to understand Memorial Day in the light of the Fourth of July, to comprehend the honorable end of the soldiers in the light of the glorious beginning and purpose of the nation. The deaths of the soldiers at Gettysburg, of those who died during the Civil War as a whole, and indeed of those who have fallen in all the wars of America, are validated by reference to the nation and its founding principles as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
But doesn’t linking Memorial Day and Independence Day glorify war and “sentimentalize” American war deaths? The soldiers who have died in America’s wars joined the service for many reasons. But all were motivated at least to a certain degree by a sense of duty and honor arising from patriotism. At a time when patriotism is under attack by such forces as critical race theory (CRT) and the claim that our founding was unjust, the explicit denigration of patriotism is a serious mistake. There are things worth fighting and dying for. A country founded on decent principles—something that no other country shares—is one such cause.
Elevating the cause for which American soldiers have died does not trivialize individual loss and the end of youth and joy. To this day I remember the inconsolable pain and grief of the mother of one of my fallen Marines with whom I corresponded in 1969. Her grief put me in mind of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Epitaphs of the War, verse IV, “An Only Son”: “I have slain none but my mother, She (Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.” Kipling, too, lost his only son in World War I.
But as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said in his Memorial Day address of 1884,”[G]rief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death—of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope and will.”
But we should never take for granted the willingness of Americans to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the republic. We should insist on a foreign policy that is worthy of that sacrifice, one based on U.S. national interests, one that does not oblige us to pursue chimeras dictated by international institutions and the mythical “international community.”
By all means, have that burger. Enjoy the cookout. But also take some time to watch “Taking Chance” to remember how to honor those who died to make your weekend possible.