SAN JOSE, May 30, 2016 — Memorial Day, if taken beyond the realm of all the fun things people do over the three day holiday weekend, can be taken very seriously, as it was long, long ago. Yet, like the topic of death itself, Memorial Day tends to conjure up issues people would rather not discuss. It is much easier to throw a barbeque together and celebrate a Monday holiday in the company of family and good friends than to think about what Memorial Day truly represents.
If taken in a serious way, Memorial Day is not the most pleasant of holidays due to its original and fundamental purpose. It originated as a day to deal with the painful experience of the nation’s loss of life on a massive scale.
Memorial Day was born from the ashes and loss as a result of the Civil War of the United States. The incredibly painful experience of the loss of so many men and boys prompted the Veteran’s Association to provide a practical means for the families and survivors to mourn and honor their loved ones and family members in an official manner.
Memorial Day continues to represent the day to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in service to their country on some distant or foreign battlefield. However, Americans are often more comfortable with skating upon the surface of issues, so Memorial Day is often limited to enjoying hamburgers and hot dogs or family-based backyard barbecues. To sacrifice the true purpose of Memorial Day is to ignore reality, and if Memorial Day is limited to marking the beginning of summer, Americans have lost touch with their heritage.
From the moment of the “shot heard ’round the world” to the “War on Terrorism,” American patriots have been willing to take up arms to fight for freedom. However, in years since the Vietnam War, Americans have been confused about what the nation stood for, and citizens have honestly doubted the bedrock values of the United States. Today, America is divided. It has been most effectively divided since the days of the Vietnam War, and perhaps in any time the United States has sent troops to fight in a war. The self-proclaimed prophets of peace emerge in times of war to generate confusion and doubt regarding war itself.
The irony with questioning war itself in the United States is that without the War for American Independence, the nation would not have existed. The nation was born via strife, and brave and brilliant men gave their lives that this nation might have come into existence. In his provocative speech, Patrick Henry voiced sentiments that inspired the revolutionary generation, “Give me Liberty, or give me death.” Yet, there was much more that he said in that speech that has been forgotten, or lost over the years. Students of history would do well in re-reading his entire speech; but among other things, he expressed his radical thoughts, and concluded strongly:
It is in vain sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me Liberty or give me death!
Patrick Henry’s impassioned ultimatum reverberated throughout the colonies, and patriots took his sincere sentiments to heart. They were willing to stand against British tyranny. Henry’s speech was delivered in Virginia less than a month before the skirmishes in Lexington and Concord when brave men and boys were willing to give their lives for the sake of freedom in Massachusetts.
Then, as Abraham Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address, “four score and seven years” before his dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, the fathers brought forth a new nation that had been “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…” The nation was essentially fighting for its survival in such a desperate time. New American patriots had to be willing to fight to preserve the very ideals of freedom that had been established by the Founding Fathers. In November of 1863, just 87 years after its birth, the U.S. was divided and embattled “in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
Sadly, over 620,000 men and boys died in the American Civil War. Yet from the ashes and destruction of that horrible war, Memorial Day (initially “Decoration Day”) was born — a day to honor those who gave their lives that a nation so conceived and so dedicated could survive. Such an incredibly painful loss of so many men and boys prompted the U.S. Veteran’s Association to provide a practical means for the families and survivors to mourn and honor their loved ones and deceased family members through official ceremonies. Essentially, the holiday originated because of the people’s need to heal from the deeply painful experience of such loss of life on an incredibly massive scale.
Abraham Lincoln’s impassioned veneration of the Union patriots at his dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery reverberated throughout the states, as he provided clarity regarding why the war was so crucial. But more than that, the troubled president’s words have impacted Americans down through the ages as his true sentiments expressed the reason why citizens need to remember Memorial Day:
Now we are in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live…
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…
Men like Patrick Henry and Abraham Lincoln understood the value of freedom. For Henry and his generation, they did lay down their lives for the sake of Liberty — not just for themselves, and not just for white people as the lie still stirs confusion today. For Lincoln and his generation, they did not die in vain as the nation did have a new birth of freedom – slavery, the antithesis of freedom, died as a result of such great sacrifice.
In the century and a half since the Civil War, American men and women heeded the call to fight for other people’s freedom: when Woodrow Wilson sent the doughboys to help “make the make the world safe for democracy,” or as Franklin Roosevelt sent our troops to the far corners of the earth to free the peoples trampled by the modern form of tyranny – dictatorship. It was more clear to Americans in those days what freedom meant, although it was not something easily understood, nor appreciated by the people of other nations for any length of time, nor understood or appreciated by a majority of young Americans in this time.
While there have always been those who primarily promoted the virtues of peace during every conflict in which the U.S. had been involved, a significant shift in the attitudes of the American people toward returning veterans occurred between the time of the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Although Americans were divided in many of the wars and conflicts that the nation fought, the Vietnam War brought out Communist organizers and Leftist sympathizers to protest the war on college campuses all across the nation. An emphasis on “peace” protests at the time did much to poison mental perspectives of an entire generation of Americans.
The national dialogue, and a willing mainstream media that shaped that dialogue, was shifted away from the fight for people’s freedom and toward the ultimate valuation of “peace at all costs” – even if it meant the cost of chains and slavery under Communism for an entire nation of people. An important question that was not often considered at the time was whether the South Vietnamese people were less worthy of their freedom than the South Koreans, or Filipinos, or the French, or the Belgians? The answer is no.
For better or worse, America’s national identity has been associated with the pursuit of Liberty, and it has become a blessing and a curse. Americans appreciate their freedom, yet often it is quite easy to neglect considering the price to be paid for such freedom. Americans should make the time to consider more seriously the value of those who offered their lives for the sake of others. Those who swear an oath to protect and defend the country and the Constitution of the United States basically are ready to offer their lives in sacrifice for the protection of all citizens in the U.S. – even to sacrifice for the protection of other people in other nations yearning to be free.
It is fitting and proper to remember the brave men and women who offered their lives in the struggle for freedom. And it is for us the living, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who sacrificed had also fought to preserve – to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – and that this nation, under God, shall continually have a new birth of freedom.