Tomorrow our nation will celebrate Memorial Day. For many, Memorial Day weekend is a time to mark the end of school and the beginning of summer. Time, finally, to sleep in.
But this weekend marks more that just a transition of seasons. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor all those who have died in American wars, a total that the Department of Veterans Affairs puts at more than 1.1 million, Our nation’s practice of honoring our war dead started after the Civil War. After World War I, all soldiers who had died in all American wars were recognized.
The practice is centuries old. Pericles, the Athenian leader, noted “Not only are they commemorated by column and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.” This tribute was given to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War more than four centuries before Christ was born.
All those who serve in the military are prepared to give their lives for our country. They are the armor and the heart of our nation. We should honor them not only through memorials, flags at half-staff, parades and ceremonies, but by remembering the purpose of their sacrifice, to protect and defend our freedom.
My grandfather was a career army officer who served in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. He never spoke to me about serving in combat, but I knew he was a soldier and protected our country, and me. As is the case with most soldiers, he was posted throughout the world during his army career.
As a result, my father counts France, Kansas and Germany among the places he grew up. He often cites his visit, at age 15, to the battlefield of Verdun, where a quarter million people died, and a million wounded, as a turning point in his life, and recently wrote about the impact of this visit. “ My dad was a career army officer, and it's no exaggeration to say that he is responsible for the path I've taken in my life. When I was fifteen, Dad took me to visit the battlefield at Verdun, in France. It was the bloodiest battle of World War I, one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century. As I came to understand the tremendous destructiveness of the battle -- and the distinct possibility that its outcome could have been different -- I knew that I would devote the rest of my life to standing between civilization and the madness of places like Verdun.”
This year has included many transitions and changes in our nation’s life. Hamilton Jordan, who helped President Carter get elected, died this month. In February, William Buckley, who made conservatism respectable and intellectually appealing in the 1960’s, died. Both men loved their country and spent their lives serving their country. Senator Ted Kennedy, who has served in the Senate since before I was born, was diagnosed this past week with a malignant brain tumor. These events remind us that we are all mortal.
While we are not all called to serve our country through serving in the armed forces or in the political arena, we all can better our country through the way we live our lives. With freedom comes responsibility, responsibility to ensure that our freedom is maintained. Freedom is never free, but comes at a cost of lives, of time, of effort and of responsibility.
While we can never truly repay those who protected our county and our freedom through their ultimate sacrifice, we can honor them not only by thanking them and remembering them, but by ensuring that we are worthy of their sacrifice.
Why is our nation worthy of sacrifice? And how can we ensure that our nation remains worthy? How can we, as American people, remain worthy of the ultimate sacrifice? The first question is answered by men and women brave enough to serve in our armed services. The second is to be answered by the American public, the citizens of this great nation. The third question is for each of us to ask ourselves. Are you living a life worth a soldier’s ultimate sacrifice?
How is our nation different from others? The Declaration of Independence holds the answer. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” In my mind, a grand experiment worth sacrifice and effort.
This year on Memorial Day, spend a moment remembering the military men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our safety and freedom.
After Memorial Day is over and you go back to work, dedicate yourself to making their sacrifice worthwhile. Take an interest and get involved in what it means to be an American. Help others understand the importance being an American and living out the American dream. We have life and liberty and must guard them both, but we are only provided the opportunity to pursue happiness, not happiness itself. Whether or not you achieve happiness is up to you, and not the responsibility of our government.
To quote President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Once we are all gone, what will our legacy be? A nation that is more free, and more prosperous because of our work and our effort? Or a nation that is faltering due to government efforts to make people happy rather than simply providing us with the liberty to pursue our happiness?
While you might be tempted to leave politics to others, that would be a dangerous tactic. As Pericles said, “just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.”