This is the most somber of holidays, the day we honor those who answered the call of their nation and gave their “last full measure of devotion.”
Abraham Lincoln wrote those words as he honored union soldiers who fell during the battle of Gettysburg in 1863. That battle turned the tide of the Civil War and saved the union.
Through the ages and wars since, no better words have been found to honor those who have perished in America’s battles. No matter that our words – including these – are inadequate, the imperative is that we remember, that we recognize their sacrifice. In that recognition, we must realize that being an American is not something that can be taken for granted.
Every day the “Greatest Generation” becomes a little smaller. They won World War II, and they are deserving of every accolade and grandiloquent pronouncement we can shower upon them. They are our grandparents and great-grandparents and what they did saved not just America, but the world. Those soldiers who lay buried in Arlington, in Normandy, Anzio, in England and Japan should be recalled on this day more than any other.
But on Memorial Day it’s all too easy to think only of those who died in the “good” wars – those wars we “won.” But others have perished, too, and in wars that we would rather forget.
More than 50,000 Americans died in Vietnam, a nation from which we fled in 1975. Yet, last week we created a stronger trading partnership with Vietnam, including docking privileges at Cam Ranh Bay, where we once had our largest naval base.
In Iraq, fighting continues though mostly without our soldiers. Most now agree our second invasion was done for reasons that couldn’t be justified by the facts. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and al-Qaida wasn’t welcome there until after we deposed Saddam Hussein. Now, 12 years later, even as we try to withdraw from the region, we get sucked back in as we confront the heinous murderers marching under the black flag of the Islamic State.
Does that make the deaths of nearly 7,000 American military personnel any less heroic? It does not. Their sacrifice was no less noble even if those who ordered them into battle were either mistaken or disingenuous.
Only one thing can besmirch the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers: failure to honor them.
It’s not enough to attend a parade or decorate the grave. Most soldiers who survive war say that in the heat of battle they weren’t fighting for love of nation or some romantic notion of valor. They were fighting to ensure the survival of their comrades and themselves. That’s what sparks heroism – love of those closest at hand.
To honor those who gave their last full measure of devotion for the sake of their comrades in arms, that battle must continue. We must insist that improvements in the care of veterans advance. That those who return from conflict suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome – an estimated 25 percent – get the treatment they need. That those veterans who end up on the streets, homeless, receive the full range of services that will help them take their rightful place in the society they fought to preserve. There are organizations such as The Mission Continues, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the National Alliance to End Homelessness and many others.
For most of us, Memorial Day is the first holiday of summer. We won’t ask anyone to sit around feeling morose, refusing to enjoy it. But we would ask that at least for a moment, we pause to remember those we honor on this day. And the next time we have a chance, to help those who also answered the call.