This is the day whose meaning is too often forgotten or misunderstood, but which is among the weightiest on the nation’s patriotic calendar. Memorial Day is also, sadly, the holiday whose relevance accumulates additional significance every year.
Today, Americans take a moment to salute those who laid down their lives for their country – a country that remains unique in the world, despite its arguments, its flaws and its mistakes. All countries bear those defects, but only a precious few have the same capacity to rise above them and to do better.
That’s what these men and women died for: They gave their lives for a country that wants to live up to the ideals on which it was built.
Beginning with the American Revolution and continuing through the great wars of the 20th century and the new millennium’s fight against terrorism, the United States has produced men and women who, year after year, prove that they were willing to give all for that idea. It happened last month in Iraq and again this month in Afghanistan. Soon enough, it will happen again.
It has happened in virtually every community in every state. Children lose a parent; parents lose a child. Communities are bereaved and the nation loses good men and women who might have gone on to make a difference, maybe a profound one.
That imposes obligations on the rest of us who have benefited from their unimaginable selflessness. The minimum is that we take time today to reflect upon and to give thanks for those who were willing to make so full a sacrifice. It’s not much to ask.
More than that is necessary over the long run, though. We also honor the memory of fallen Americans by caring appropriately for their survivors, by ensuring that those who are wounded receive the care their sacrifice deserves and by treating all veterans with respect and gratitude. All of them offered the same level of sacrifice, after all; it’s just that not all are called upon to make it. America hasn’t been very good at meeting that obligation, lately. We can do better.
None of this is to deny, or object to, the other meaning that Memorial Day has taken on over the years: It’s the unofficial start of the summer season – and a welcome start, it is.
Picnics await. Steaks and strawberries and ice cream are on the menu. Grilling muscles are about get their seasonal workout. Road trips beckon as the sun hangs long and high in the evening sky. In all that, today is an invitation to heaven, Northeastern style.
Memorial Day is all of that, too, and why not? Honoring those who gave their lives can surely include celebrating the pleasures that their sacrifices helped to preserve. It’s just that it needs to be more than that.
So take some time today to absorb what others were asked to forgo. March in a parade, or applaud those who do. Fly the flag. Read the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation. Visit a veteran’s grave. Consider well the gift bequeathed to us and purchased with blood, usually from those standing at the threshold of adulthood.
More names will be added to the long list of battlefield dead. We know that, as sure as the sun will set in the evening. Maybe that will happen today or later this week, almost surely within a month. The world is a dangerous place. Our security requires the service of men and women willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
America has to hope that its leaders understand how terribly the loss of life shakes the homes and communities where they are felt. The decision to put young men and women at risk of death must be made soberly and, when necessary, decisively. But we should never forget what we are asking and what the battlefield dead have given.