Memorial Day: Honoring those who gave up two lives

Soliders of the 3d U.S. Infantry, traditionally known as “The Old Guard.” placed 243,000 flags at graves at Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day

Last Friday the President issued a Proclamation declaring “Memorial Day, May 28, 2018, as a day of prayer for permanent peace.”  He also said:

“On Memorial Day, we pause in solemn gratitude to pay tribute to the brave patriots who laid down their lives defending peace and freedom while in military service to our great Nation.  We set aside this day to honor their sacrifice and to remind all Americans of the tremendous price of our precious liberty.”

As a reminder, Memorial Day is intended to commemorate those who have died in the service, while Veterans Day (Nov 11) which is also a public holiday, is intended to honor all veterans.

I’ve written before about Memorial Day’s history and traditions but a new essay by Richard Gardiner, the co-author of a history of Memorial Day, reveals “the holiday came about as a result of an initiative by women in the former Confederacy who soon after the end of the bloody Civil War honored the graves of the fallen from both sides of the conflict.”

1.1 million Americans from all parts of our society have paid the ultimate price in our Nation’s conflicts.  Many people mistakenly believe the sacrifice, especially in recent wars, has fallen disproportionately on the poor and minorities.  Reports from the Congressional Research Service last year (see here and here) tell a very different story, but what they do affirm is that the young pay a heavy price: about 78% of those killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 75% who died in Operations Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), were age 30 or under.

What makes these losses all the sadder is the thought of what might have been for those who died.  President Ronald Reagan said:

“It is, in a way, an odd thing to honor those who died in defense of our country, in defense of us, in wars far away.  The imagination plays a trick.  We see these soldiers in our mind as old and wise.  We see them as something like the Founding Fathers, grave and gray haired.”  

“But most of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives — the one they were living and the one they would have lived.  When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers.  They gave up their chance to be revered old men.  They gave up everything for our country, for us.  And all we can do is remember.”

We also have many young women who have paid the ultimate price.  Women who will not be able to rejoice at a daughter’s wedding; hold grandchildren in their arms; retire and relax with a spouse of many years.

To appreciate how special these people are, consider that we live in world where fewer and fewer are willing to risk everything “for our country, for us.”  Last October it was reported that of the 33.4 million Americans ages 17 to 24, only 1.7 million are available and qualified for military service.  Of that group, only 160,000 would even consider joining the Army.  Similarly, a 2015 Harvard poll found that while 60% of millennials supported “sending ground troops to fight the Islamic State,” only 15% said they joined or would actually consider joining the military if the US “needed more troops to fight the Islamic State.”

Honoring special people can take a variety of forms.  Here at Duke Law, a bagpiper plays during the hooding ceremony, a joyous event where new law grads are welcomed into the life of the law.  But for me and for other veterans, the mournful tones of that instrument bring thoughts and memories of a different group of young people.  Other nations have unique ways of remembering their war dead. If you’ve never seen this video of the New Zealand Defense Force honoring a fallen comrade with a traditional haka it is an amazing tribute.

In this country, the President has designated the “hour beginning in each locality at 11:00 a.m. of that day as a time when people might unite in prayer” and has asked “all Americans to observe the National Moment of Remembrance beginning at 3:00 p.m. local time” today.

As we remind ourselves of the “tremendous price of our precious liberty” I recommend taking a few minutes to look at this video set to Sarah McLachlan’s haunting Arms of an Angel.

There are many ways we can honor those who have fallen (my wife has suggestions on her blog here). I would simply add that we ought to live as brave Americans with a deep and abiding appreciation for the fact that freedom isn’t free.

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