The Big Picture behind Memorial Day

Memorial Day had its origin as Decoration Day following the Civil War, but it became an official federal holiday to honor those who lost their lives while serving in the armed forces of the United States only in 1971.

Memorial Day is also an occasion to associate those who died with the just causes for which the United States was willing to go to war.  World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam were conflicts where freedom was clearly at stake.  The post-9-11 engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria remain a bit more complicated, being associated with responses to horrific abuse of power and to transnational radical Islamist terrorism.  

October 2018 will mark the commemoration of 25 years since U.S. forces suffered defeat in Somalia.  But we still commemorate the courageous Army Rangers and Delta Force members who fought and died in the chaotic streets of Mogadishu so their fellow soldiers could survive and be rescued against overwhelming odds, depicted in the popular film Blackhawk Down.

Some U.S. military engagements were ill advised, and history shows that the instances of injustice were probably greater from actions taken by Washington politicians and bureaucrats than by the military in the field.  For instance, the government's willingness to authorize and deploy military force without clear objectives and a strategy for victory – which put American lives in harm's way and cost 58,220 lives – was the great injustice of the Vietnam War.  In other cases, such as in Iraq, President Obama's political decision to withdraw U.S. military forces by the end of 2011 directly led to the injustice of reversal of hard fought gains made by the military in the prior eight years, which resulted in a power vacuum that was filled by the rise of ISIS and growing Iranian influence.    

Over a million Americans have given their lives in defending U.S. interests in conflicts large and small.  And while remembering those people is a central purpose of this holiday, Memorial Day takes on its deepest meaning when we connect it with our roots.  Americans were unique in sacrificing their treasure and giving their lives to found the first country in history establishing that all people have natural rights that come from God rather than from rulers or government.  The Declaration of Independence affirmed the equality of all people and that they are endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Thus, when Americans sacrificed their lives in military service, it was not just to defend the United States, but it was also to uphold the natural rights and spiritual values associated with the nation's founding that provide inspiration for others worldwide. 

There were times and places in human history when there were nation-states of cultural achievement, virtue, and efflorescence, such as in Periclean Athens, in the Florence of the Medicis, and in England of Elizabeth and Shakespeare.  But none was founded the way America was – that is, by a collection of human genius who prayerfully approached drafting a constitution that would mitigate corruption and abuse of power while also protecting the citizens' unalienable God-given rights and enabling them to rise to levels closer to the divine image in which all were created than they would have under any government previously conceived.

Yet another significant part of celebrating Memorial Day is associated with the example set by Americans in how they treated their vanquished foes.

The respect that General MacArthur and the occupying American forces displayed after Japan's surrender surprised and won over many of the people, who assumed that the victorious Americans would execute their beloved emperor and plunder them and treat them in ways similar to what Japanese soldiers did to those they had conquered in East and Southeast Asia.  The courtesy and respect shown by the Americans helped mollify resistance to the occupation's policies that forced fundamental change on the country – rewriting the constitution and laws; land reform; and the reorganization of business ownership to provide more competition, fairness, and opportunity.

In Europe after armistice, the war-indebted United States launched the Marshall Plan that gave some $125 billion in current dollar value in economic support to help reconstruct war-devastated regions in Western Europe.  Major initiatives included rebuilding industry – even giving the Europeans a leg up on the U.S. with the building of state-of-the-art factories and facilities that were in many cases more efficient than what then existed in the U.S.

In sum, Memorial Day means more than remembering those who died in military service to the country.  It means connecting with a heritage that began with a courageous and faithful group of founders, who risked their lives for the birth of freedom and the establishment of America as a "shining city on a hill."  It also means remembering all who subsequently died for their nation, and especially "the greatest generation," who – after forfeiting so many lives to assure victory for the Allied nations in World War II – then sacrificed more to rebuild and preserve the independence of its former enemies.

Scott Powell is senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.  His father enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor and recently celebrated his 95th birthday.  Powell can be reached at