Memorial Day 2022: Remembering “freedom isn’t free”

Although Memorial Day is a national observance on the last Monday in May to honor those who sacrificed their lives while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, it arrives this year in the midst of a bloody struggle for freedom in Ukraine where its citizenry has risen up to battle a ruthless invader.

Do too many Americans think freedom is free?

Soldiers 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

If looking at the rows of gravestones in U.S. military cemeteries – and contemplating the more than 1.3 million American military members who died in conflicts to preserve our freedoms – doesn’t make it clear that “freedom isn’t free,” the horror of the war we see unfolding in Ukraine ought to do so.

However, new data suggests we need to ponder these almost unthinkable questions: do all Americans really understand the cost of freedom?  That it isn’t free?  Will enough Americans continue to be willing to risk paying the ultimate price to preserve freedom?

Consider this extract from a March 2022 poll by Quinnipiac University:

As the world witnesses what is happening to Ukraine, Americans were asked what they would do if they were in the same position as Ukrainians are now: stay and fight or leave the country?  A majority (55 percent) say they would stay and fight, while 38 percent say they would leave the country. (Emphasis added).

Sadly, you read it correctly: only a little more than half of Americans would be willing to fight for their country.  Do the rest simply assume, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, that in some other country they will be “made and kept” free “by the exertions of better [people] than [themselves]”? 

Perhaps this report from Ukraine showing a great-grandmother learning to fire an AK-47 assault rifle in order to fight the Russian invasion would be worth noting…as may be the many other stories of ordinary Ukraine citizens who understood that ‘freedom isn’t free’ and rushed to defend their country at any cost.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Hennessy expressed alarm at the Quinnipiac poll figures, and differentiated the kind of conflict raging in Ukraine from that of Vietnam and other wars that some people thought were unjust.  Hennessy says:

The conflict hypothesized by the Quinnipiac pollsters wasn’t a war for oil or empire.  Poll respondents were asked to envision a foreign invader on their own front porch.  Imagine Vladimir Putin has sent his shock troops to level your hometown, to occupy your high school and drop a missile on the hospital where you were born.  If you won’t fight for hearth and home, what would you fight for?

Honoring those with an “extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.” 

Fully answering that question is a topic for another post, but for now let’s recall President Barack Obama’s wonderful 2009 Memorial Day remarks where he acknowledged the uniqueness of the sacrifice of those U.S. military members who did pay the ultimate price while serving.  Calling them “the best of America.”  He rhetorically asked:

“What tugs at a person until he or she says “Send me”?  Why, in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of the narrowest self-interest, have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others?  Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden? 

Whatever it is, they felt some tug; they answered a call; they said “I’ll go.” That is why they are the best of America, and that is what separates them from those of us who have not served in uniform — their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.” 

They “put their lives on the line for an idea — the idea of America”

Ponder as well this portion of President Biden’s proclamation for Memorial Day 2022:

On Memorial Day, we remember the patriots who gave their lives in the service of America, in the service of freedom, and in the service of justice. They made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our Constitution and our democracy. We are free because they were brave, and we live by the light of the flame of liberty they kept burning. They are all heroes, and our Nation is forever grateful.

Those who wear the uniform of the United States Armed Forces know the pride of service and what it means to dedicate themselves to a cause greater than themselves. These women and men put their lives on the line for an idea — the idea of America. They are the best of us. On this day, as we honor the fallen angels who consecrated this great Nation and the ideals that we stand for with their blood, we rededicate ourselves to the unending work of bringing our country ever closer to that more perfect Union for which they died.

Remembering those who “gave up two lives”

Allow me to once again cite President Ronald Regan’s 1985 remarks about the sacrifice servicemembers make as I find them both deeply moving and extraordinarily profound.  Although made on Veteran’s Day (which is to honor all veterans living and dead), I think they also make a superb Memorial Day tribute:

“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.” 

Of course, we also have many young women who have also paid the ultimate price. (See the heart-rending video here.)  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.

I often think of Rich Lin, a hugely talented 2016 Duke Law grad who died in an accident in 2017 while serving on active duty as a Navy Judge Advocate. His loss will always be with his family and many friends. (“A Life Too Short Leaves a Lesson and Legacy)

Including those who paid the ultimate price in your Memorial Day activities

How can you and your family honor the fallen on Memorial Day?  You may want to take a look at my wife’s blog, Memorial Day – 22 Ways to Enjoy and Pay Tribute.” 

Also, for the third year in a row, CBS News “is marking Memorial Day by inviting musicians of all abilities and ages across the country to honor our fallen soldiers by playing Taps during the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time.”  More info is found here.

May I further suggest (as I did last year) that you watch the short video (here) made from scenes from the movie Taking Chance?  The film, starring Kevin Bacon, is based on a true story about the journey of the remains of a 20-year-old Marine, Chance Phelps, who was killed in action in Iraq, and Marine lieutenant colonel Mike Strobl who volunteered to accompany him home.  It is very powerful, and represents the loss so many families have suffered.  It isn’t easy to watch, but you need to take five minutes and see it.

Concluding thoughts

Let’s close by contemplating some more from President Biden’s proclamation:

Today and every day, we ask God to protect our troops, to shine light perpetual upon the fallen, and to bring comfort to their families. To those who mourn a loved one, and to America’s Gold Star Families who have lost a loved one in conflict, my heart aches for you. Our Nation owes you and those you have lost a tremendous debt that we can never fully repay. On Memorial Day, we vow to honor their memories and support the families, caregivers, and survivors they left behind.

As we honor the memories of our fallen heroes, we are grateful for the future they made possible for us and rededicate ourselves to seeking enduring peace. Our heroes gave their lives for our country, and they live forever in our hearts — forever proud, forever honorable, and forever American.

These are the right words, but are Americans really hearing them?  A 2020 poll showed that only 43% of Amercians know the meaning of Memorial Day.  Are we living in an era where even the sacrifices in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are already beginning to fade from the public’s memory?

We must not forget.  At the end of the video clip of the movie Taking Chance, these words appear:

 As the bloodshed in Ukraine tragically reminds us…

You may also like...