Note: This is an edited version of a post about Memorial Day that I posted here last year. It is based on a Memorial Day address I gave in 2005 at the Dover, Ohio Memorial Day observance in 2004.
Not enough people will read this or the other Memorial Day tribute posts. Most will be out enjoying a "three day holiday weekend." And I intend to do the same. But my prayer is that at some point in this weekend we will all stop, find a quiet place, and lift a prayer of gratitude for those who made the supreme sacrifice so that we can have three day weekends knowing that we still hold our liberty as one of the highest values of this nation.
Men and women have fought and died believing that they were serving a cause far greater than themselves. Some have died in wars where the enemy was clear and they knew exactly who they were fighting and why. They knew that the people of this nation declared them to be "good" wars, wars against evil. Others have fought in wars that were not worth their sacrifice.
But we must distinguish between the morality of a war, or the lack of it, and the men and women who fight believing they are doing it for us, and for our children and our children's children. And so we should honor all who gave of themselves, their blood, and, too often, their very lives. All those we honor this day.
When I was a child we called this time Decoration Day. And we used to pick flowers and carry them to the cemetery in town and lay them on the graves of soldiers from the town who were honored on that day. But the custom of honoring those who have fallen in war began long before I was a child. It began in the Southern states immediately after the Civil War when people decorated the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers.
In 1868, General John Logan, who was then commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, named May 30, the date of discharge of the last Union soldier following the Civil War, as a day to decorate the graves of Union soldiers as well. Later the graves of all soldiers, sailors, and marines were so honored regardless of what war they fought in, or whether or not they died in combat. The date was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May several years ago.
What we need to remember now is that, for almost a century and a half, throughout this nation, we have dedicated this time to the memory of all those who have fallen in the defense of this nation, regardless of the branch of military in which they served.
And, in more recent years, we have also taken this time to remember not only those lost in battle, but also those of our own loved ones and friends who have gone from us by accident, through tragedy, or in the normal course of life.
I am sure that many of us, and others throughout this great nation, are this day are remembering the great loss of life that we suffered on September 11, 2001, and the 5000 plus American service personnel who have since lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan these last long eight years.
For longer than anyone alive can remember, we have honored our dead by celebrating this special time. Remembering is the key to Memorial Day. Memorial Day is about is remembering. We all know too well how easy it is to forget, to take for granted, or to deliberately close our minds to the hardships and sacrifices which are sometimes difficult and painful to recall.
But there are some things we must remember. For without memory, without the history and tradition of remembrance, we cannot know the price which has been paid for our freedom. Without remembrance, we cannot know the debt that we shall always owe to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us, sacrifices made when many of us were yet unborn.
REMEMBERING. The word is so common that we sometimes forget what it means. "RE -membering" literally means to put the members back together, to gather together what has otherwise been torn apart. We can’t do that physically in this life, for we must wait for God to provide that miracle for us and for our lost loved ones and comrades who have gone before us. But, until then we can RE-member them in our minds, and most of all, in our hearts.
Remembering is what separates us from those who don’t care, from those who are so caught up in their own importance that they have no time to think of others. Remembering is what separates us from those who are sure that what they have is what they alone have earned, and who believe that they owe no debts to anyone, past or present.
We who will bow our heads in a silent prayer or simply in remembrance on Memorial Day know better. We know that we owe our liberty, our freedom, to all those who died for the right for us to live as free people in a free land.
On this day I put away my arguments about the evil done in the last Administration and the lack of seeming purpose by the present Administration to do something to set that right. There will be many future days for me to continue that fight. Today is not one of them. Today we should be more unified than we ever are, a day when there is no right or left, no Democrat or Republican, no insiders or outsiders, but only Americans. Americans remembering.
Remembering separates us from the cold and unthinking, from those who would pay no allegiance to anyone but themselves, and who would give no honor to those who died believing that the values of this nation were worth fighting for, and, if necessary, dying for.
Patriotism is a battered concept today. For too long it was defined as those who supported the regime in power. That is changing but it will take time to replace allegiance to party with allegiance to country. In too many places in this nation we argue over even what basic human values and virtues are.
This should not really surprise us. It should not surprise us -- even though it should dismay us -- that our dead are not honored as they should be.
Community Memorial Day services are not widely attended these days. We have other things to do, or, as in my case, my health will not allow me to spend that kind of time in the heat.
But that is no justification for me not to remember. I can still think about the sacrifices made. I can still say a prayer in thanksgiving for that long line of those who put their lives on the line for me and my family, even though I know not their names, no did they know mine. But I know that many of them paid the ultimate sacrifice for the ideal that we all might be free.
For the last several days, families across America have been preparing for their Memorial Day weekend. And that is fine. I have too. I doubt that any of the honored dead for whom Memorial Day was established would begrudge American families the opportunity to have some quality time together, for people to relax and enjoy themselves.
But we must not forget what this time is really about. This is a time in which we, as a community, as a nation, gather together in groups as small as a family, or a couple newly in love looking for some time to just be together. We can gather in groups small and large, and while gathered, or even while alone, remember.
On this day we pause to remember that there are essential lessons to be learned, and re-learned; lessons for young and old alike: to remember and appreciate the blessings of freedom; to recognize the enormity of the sacrifice that has been made for us, and to pay honor and respect to those who gave everything on behalf of our common good. This day reminds us of what we can achieve when we pull together as one nation, respecting each other in spite of our differences.
And this day reminds us as well of our duty to honor not only those we lost in freedom's cause, but also, through our thoughts and our actions, to remember the service men and women who came back home from our wars, and are now our veterans. It is a day to remember, as well, the families of those who lost loved ones, and the families of those lost for whom there has never been a final accounting.
We must remember as well those who are putting their lives on the line for us in far off wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that we may not individually support, wars that I do not personally support. But our service men and women are there. They are in harms way. And we, you and I, are not. That too is worth remembering.
There really are answers for those who think that this time is just like any other- except that we get a "long weekend"; to those who pause not an instant in their pursuit of their personal pleasures. We say “No. You are wrong.” to those who say that there is nothing worth remembering, no one worth honoring, no country worth saving.
This is not the time to lift my grievances, or for me to complain about how so much of what this nation does in the political and economic sphere makes little sense, about all the things we write about so passionately, about all that is "wrong" with America.
This is a time when I have something more important to do; a time when we look back and remember the shoulders upon which we stand as we look forward to what we hope will be a new and brighter day for this nation. There are those who will say, "Why bother?" Its past history, isn't it?" "Its time to move on, to look to the future, isn't it?"
To them we say, perhaps we will do what you suggest tomorrow. But, for today, we say that we remember. We remember. And we are thankful. And we will never forget the sacrifices made for us. Never. We shall remember.
And we shall teach our children, and our children’s children, of the great privilege and honor of being Americans, and of the great sacrifices that have been made for us.
On this Memorial Day we will pledge to carry a simple message into the future. Our message is that there were, and that there still are, those who loved this country enough to fight and to die, if necessary, to preserve the American way of life. That, my friends, we shall never forget.
May God bless each of us and our families, and may we always remember and give thanks for sacrifices made.