There is no more somber day in America than Memorial Day. It is on this day that Americans pause to reflect on the service and sacrifice of the men and women who wore the uniform and were killed in the name of freedom.
Memorial Day will be different this year. The coronavirus remains among us and caution suggests limiting large gatherings of people who would ordinarily come together at ceremonies across the country. As a former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, there was no greater honor for me than to be invited to deliver remarks at such events. This year, I suspect there will be more individual retrospection and fewer instances of people in large groups sharing thoughts, feelings and stories.
Given the deep implications of Memorial Day, the question arises; do we ‘observe’ Memorial Day or do we ‘celebrate’ it? It’s not a simple question of semantics. Words have meaning and this meaning is attached to the subject of how it is used. We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween and Cinco De Mayo, but is it appropriate to celebrate an occasion marking the deaths of more than 1.3 million Americans dating back to the Revolutionary War?
Consider how these men and women died. Some suffered agonizing deaths on the field of combat or in captivity. The luckier ones died instantly, never really feeling or knowing that death had come to them. Many others died of disease, infection or for other reasons. During the Civil War, more men died of non-combat causes than those killed by an enemy. It’s impossible to celebrate this level of suffering.
Many of those who participate in Memorial Day ceremonies do so because a loved one was killed in service to the nation. It may be a parent or spouse who died, one whose absence still brings tremendous, lingering pain to the survivors. Others gather to remember an ancestor who died many years ago, trying in their own way to keep alive the memory of that service. Some frame their remembrance in terms of noble sacrifice; some see their loved one’s death as a waste, a life lost in a miscalculated cause. Is it right to celebrate any of this?
Looking past the tears and bowed heads and folded hands that mark Memorial Day, we can see something else; an idea. The idea of America is arguably the most significant in human history. It is an idea spawned by a small group of people who took great risks three centuries ago to begin a new, experimental life, individually and collectively. For all our flaws, past and present, the United States remains the greatest, most prosperous, most egalitarian civic exercise ever undertaken.
This is something worth celebrating. It is the reason so many Americans have fought and died, and we have understood this throughout our history. From Thomas Jefferson writing that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reminding us that we will “Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground,” the notion of brave people willing to fight and die for the idea of America is part of our national DNA.
We do not celebrate the death of the Marine in Fallujah, the Ranger on Omaha Beach, the sailor at Pearl Harbor or the pilot over the jungles of Vietnam. We commemorate their deaths but we can also celebrate the reasons they fought and died. They did their best, as God gave them the vision, to preserve for us and bring to others, the blessings of liberty. Is there any virtue greater than this worth celebrating?
We cannot and ought not separate mourning from Memorial Day. To do so would betray those who died for America. But we can leaven our grief with a celebration of why these patriots gave their lives. Perhaps we need this more today than ever. The many government responses to COVID-19 have raised legitimate questions about the exercise of our fundamental rights and the preservation of our liberties. Let us celebrate Memorial Day with a patriot’s eye toward freedom and a tear for those who sacrificed everything.