“See, I had this theory once. I believed in the politics of Saturday night. I rated all governments and countries by how good or bad their Saturday nights were. And I knew that Moscow and Peking had to be a stone drag at that time of the week. So I was flying for a cause. I was fighting to defend chicken barbecues, and weenie roasts, and Ray Charles songs, and drinking Southern Comfort ‘till you passed out behind the bar.”
—Mel Gibson as Gene Ryack in Air America
This is Memorial Day weekend. There will be baseball games, backyard cookouts, and fireworks displays. Somewhere in the Heartland we’ll burn thousands of gallons of gasoline and release untold volumes of greenhouse gases in an effort to see who can make 800 left turns in the shortest amount of time without crashing. Then down South we’ll do it again, only with twice as many turns and cars that aren’t nearly as sexy. We’ll fish, play golf, get sunburned, eat way too much processed meat, and drink vast amounts of beer.
Yes, we’ll have a grand old time of it.
I don’t begrudge anyone a three-day weekend, and I’m all for just about any excuse to drink beer. But amidst all the revelry, we tend to lose sight of what Memorial Day is.
Memorial Day has its roots in the aftermath of the Civil War; its 625,000 dead accounted for over 90% of all American war dead to that point in our history. As a way of coping with the enormity of that loss, various cities around the country began holding annual observances to remember their local war dead. While the Southerner in me would like to denounce the practice as a Yankee abomination, the truth is that these observances were widespread in both the North and the South, and honored both Union and Confederate dead. These various local traditions gradually consolidated into a single observance on May 30, a date chosen precisely because it did not coincide with the anniversary of any major battle, and thus could be separated from any kind of victor’s celebration and thus its core purpose preserved. And over time the day has expanded from a Civil War remembrance to a time to commemorate all of our war dead.
Congress, in its infinite wisdom, included Memorial Day in the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, officially moving Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May, thus creating the three-day weekend now familiar to us all. But in so doing, the day—I won’t call it a “holiday,” because it isn’t holy or religious, and strictly speaking it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a celebration—came unmoored from its original intent. Hence, our present day lack of focus.
Memorial Day is the day on which we honor the sacrifice of those who gave it all for the cause of freedom and the defense of this country. According to MilitaryFactory.com, approximately 1,319,475 men and women—a little over 5,500 every single year since 1776—have paid that price over the course of our history. You may disagree all you want with the policymakers who sent them into battle, but you should not let that disagreement distract you from remembering and honoring them—they paid the bill for you to have that right to disagree.
By all means, tap that keg and pass the burgers. But let’s remember why we’re here this weekend, and make sure your kids know why, too. I’ll let President Reagan close with some excerpts from his remarks at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day, 1984:
Mr. President, General, the distinguished guests here with us today, my fellow citizens:
In America’s cities and towns today, flags will be placed on graves in cemeteries; public officials will speak of the sacrifice and the valor of those whose memory we honor.
In 1863, when he dedicated a small cemetery in Pennsylvania marking a terrible collision between the armies of North and South, Abraham Lincoln noted the swift obscurity of such speeches. Well, we know now that Lincoln was wrong about that particular occasion. His remarks commemorating those who gave their ‘last full measure of devotion’ were long remembered. But since that moment at Gettysburg, few other such addresses have become part of our national heritage—not because of the inadequacy of the speakers, but because of the inadequacy of words.
I have no illusions about what little I can add now to the silent testimony of those who gave their lives willingly for their country. Words are even more feeble on this Memorial Day, for the sight before us is that of a strong and good nation that stands in silence and remembers those who were loved and who, in return, loved their countrymen enough to die for them.
* * *
It’s not just strength or courage that we need, but understanding and a measure of wisdom as well. We must understand enough about our world to see the value of our alliances. We must be wise enough about ourselves to listen to our allies, to work with them, to build and strengthen the bonds between us.
Our understanding must also extend to potential adversaries. We must strive to speak of them not belligerently, but firmly and frankly. And that’s why we must never fail to note, as frequently as necessary, the wide gulf between our codes of morality. And that’s why we must never hesitate to acknowledge the irrefutable difference between our view of man as master of the state and their view of man as servant of the state. Nor must we ever underestimate the seriousness of their aspirations to global expansion. The risk is the very freedom that has been so dearly won.
* * *
Winston Churchill said of those he knew in World War II they seemed to be the only young men who could laugh and fight at the same time. A great general in that war called them our secret weapon, ‘just the best darn kids in the world.’ Each died for a cause he considered more important than his own life. Well, they didn’t volunteer to die; they volunteered to defend values for which men have always been willing to die if need be: the values which make up what we call ‘civilization.’ And how they must have wished, in all the ugliness that war brings, that no other generation of young men to follow would have to undergo that same experience.
As we honor their memory today, let us pledge that their lives, their sacrifices, their valor shall be justified and remembered for as long as God gives life to this nation. And let us also pledge to do our utmost to carry out what must have been their wish: that no other generation of young men will ever have to share their experiences and repeat their sacrifice.
Thank you, Mr. President.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks again for those of you who have been keeping up, and especially those of you who return comments (even those who disagree). I will be out on vacation next week, and posts may be few and far between until I return.