My wife's parents were liberated at Belsen by British soldiers (who had been fighting Hitler for five years). Her future life was possible, quite literally, because of their courage. She never fails to pass a serviceman without saying "Thanks for your service." My father, the most perfect person I have ever known, served in the Army, then the Army Air Corps, and finally the Navy. He joined the Navy in 1942, although he was exempt from the draft in 1941, because he felt that is was the moral duty of every man to fight Hitler. Each day we are safe because soldiers, sailors, airman, corpsmen, and policemen place themselves between us and evil.
When these men have fallen or when their young bodies have been maimed forever in defense of our safety, the poignant moment of thanks we give inevitably dissolves over the years into an empty, formalistic expression of gratitude. We fool ourselves into believing that the trivial problems of our comfortable lives have somehow matched the bravery, the pain, and the nightmares that haunt these heroes for the rest of their lives. Perhaps on Memorial Day, we can drop the mask of studied indifference and hold in our heart this famous line from one of the briefest speeches in presidential history:
... that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of 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 ...
It is a grim tribute to the Orwellian nature of modern education that some of our schoolchildren, even some of our college graduates -- perhaps even the president himself (who is spending Memorial Day recreating himself on account of the heavy burdens of his busy life) -- do not recognize those words. But what Lincoln said at Gettysburg we should vow each Memorial Day to remember.
Historians still battle over the need or the virtue of the Civil War. Without war, would the South have ended slavery, just as much of the North had, through state emancipation? Maybe: Consider that "slave" states included Delaware, Missouri, and Maryland, and note that Robert E. Lee himself thought slavery was wrong. Historical debates do not diminish a single word from Lincoln's address. Young men do not choose the wars they fight. They simply answer their country's call. They fight for its ideals, even when their political leaders are misguided. America is less its "leaders" and more these noble, scared young men whose honor trumped their terror of war and who gave us "their last full measure of devotion."
We do not need to glorify war to give thanks for their sacrifice. Young men do not make wars, and no one needs remind them of the ghastliness or grisliness of war. Our obligation is to look at Arlington Cemetery (or any military cemetery, or at a local law enforcement cemetery of policemen who died to keep us safe) and respect what these men have given us. Most of the fallen are now forgotten. Their memory, their shortened lives, their mangled bodies laid into some distant grave -- these plain and awful data of history -- cannot hold the attention of a world in which only the last day's news cycle is real.
The faith in America of those brave men who don a uniform to keep us safe has survived the debauchery and deconstruction of the sixties, the cynicism of politics, and the rule of presidents who "loathed the military." The resilience of these good and ordinary Americans transcends political parties (if there are no atheists in the foxhole, then there are also no Republicans or Democrats). Their will to defend us defies the conventional amorality of modern selfishness. When they not only liberate but succor, in spite of their own long campaigns and bitter deprivations, emaciated Jews imprisoned in Hell, like my wife's parents, these Americans do only what is natural to them.
Where is Billy? What happened to Sam? They lie deep in the earth, far from our thoughts, and farther still from our banal lives. Our fathers, our sons, our brothers, and our husbands -- or once they were -- are done with the world of the living. They left it far too soon. Their only monuments are a Cross or a Mogen David in some manicured lawns...and, if we are good enough people, our grateful hearts.