Most holidays are a blend of recreation and dedicated purpose. If any American holiday should wear that title a little awkwardly in the mind, it is Memorial Day. Memorial service suggests the solemnity of a funeral, but Memorial day beckons many toward barbecues, softball, or maybe a trip to the lake. That is fitting, but those good things should not eclipse the moments of grace and gratitude the day was made for. Memorial Day is an occasion to honor those who gave all, to console or appreciate their families, and to think on the cause for which they died.
A friend once observed something both simple and profound. It’s tempting to think of warriors as different from the rest of us, somehow feeling less pain or fear than ordinary people. But when we recognize that fighting men and women have the same feelings and desires we all do, we appreciate the real nature of their courage and sacrifice. This applies especially to those who sacrifice their lives.
No one wants to die in combat. As awful as that is, the real sacrifice is not the moment of peril. It is the unknown life that was not lived, the unwritten chapters snatched away from a young person full of hope and full of future.
I had occasion to ponder this more personally one day in the Colorado legislature as we honored fallen Navy Seal Danny Dietz. Sen. Mike Kopp, a former Seal himself, presented the memorial that spanned from Danny’s boyhood desire to be a Ninja, to his brave death on a ridge high in the mountains of Afghanistan. It was a rich life only starting to unfold.
Years before, I had a similar sad privilege as I and my colleagues honored a young man whose name I’ve forgotten from the nearby town of Thornton. We learned about his youthful sports and high school crushes, his love of family and his love of the United States. And we silently imagined the pages he would never fill.
Some things struck and stuck with me. On that morning, the approaching Memorial Day seemed less of a military remembrance than a societal tribute to the sacrifice of what might have been to defend freedoms and security we unite to protect.
Second, it dawned that the United States has the most powerful military on earth because this young man volunteered to serve, and when ordered into duty, he was willing to go around the world and live in dirty, dangerous conditions, and fight. His family that loved him also supported his aspiration.
It’s not just him, but millions of individuals from all walks of life in all corners of the nation that bear the burden. It is Americans. We the People: men and women, neighbors, classmates, siblings, children, parents, are willing to defend this nation. Their families stand behind them. And are left waiting and worrying behind.
In a country as vast, prosperous and technologically advanced as the United States, it’s easy to think abstractly about the nation’s strength. Maybe it’s a consequence of a large population, or national GDP and resources, or astounding technology. But that gets things backwards. America is strong and secure because real people are willing to risk and defend her.
Every man and woman who leaves their home, their neighborhood, their comforts, builds that strength. Every family who sustains the fighter’s commitment also support’s their nation’s strength. Memorial Day too, then, is an opportunity to remember the families who have lost loved ones.
After each of those resolutions was read, the legislature temporarily adjourned to allow members to greet family. Lawmakers walked single-file past parents and siblings. I shook the father’s hand, and saw his wet eyes. I hugged the mother and saw her wet cheeks.
It became sharply clear again. Our fallen soldiers are not “American” losses or statistics; they are not news about a distant tragedy. They are friends, brothers, children. They leave a hole in the fabric of their friends’ and families’ lives that cannot be filled. Their sacrifice spreads to be shouldered by others. Many of us know people who have lost loved ones. They too should be in our thoughts, and better, in our gestures.
Finally, Memorial Day is an occasion to solemnly consider the unfinished work for which men and women gave the last full measure of devotion. The United States is unique among earth’s nations. It was conceived as an enterprise to secure men’s inalienable rights, including life, liberty and property. It was constituted and organized to secure justice, domestic tranquility, and the blessings of liberty. It is a striving, aspiring society that shed great blood over its flaws, and amended its charter a number of times to move closer to the ideal of liberty and justice for all.
For some, that might be too sanguine, even jingoistic. Too eager to approve every conflict as embracing American ideals and advancing American interests. They too have a point. Memorial Day should be a time to consider the toll of war, the tearing of families, the historic rending of civil liberties. That debate, and its resolution also are part of the unfinished work of preserving government of the people, by the people, and for the people in the greatest nation God has yet allowed to flourish on the earth.