As we pause for a few moments this weekend to remember those who laid down their private civilian lives to take up arms, then never came home, let’s remember…
Each of those men and women had parents.
Some had siblings.
Some had spouses or fiances or other loved ones
Some had children.
Some had aunts and uncles and cousins.
Brothers and sisters in arms.
The truth is, the cost of war is higher than gold and blood. It can also be counted in the lives of those who receive that dreaded letter, or telegraph, or personal call at any hour of the day or night.
“We’re sorry to inform you…”
One life is over, and another life must begin living with a memory where a loved one once had been.
If the cost is so high, why pay it?
Because of the value of freedom.
As a historian, I’ve read so many accounts from all over the world and time from different people. The freedom to become something that isn’t dictated by the status of your parents, or your “class” or what you look like, or where you live is so amazingly unusual.
And the ability to do that, to be free to become something radically different from where you started, no matter where, is worth protecting. So much so, that men and women still voluntarily chose to give up their civilian freedom to become a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Coast Guardsman, or Marine.
As a country, we’re imperfect, because we’re made of imperfect people.
Thankfully, courage doesn’t rely on perfection.
Neither does love.
And neither does gratitude.
Freedom can get snuffed out in a generation, or even through an action, or inaction. Over the years of our history, this country has put freedom to be who we can be as individuals living together to test after test. Those tests have stretched us, changed us, molded us, and even once, tore us apart.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States of America became divided. Over the next four years, the process of war killed more Americans than the previous wars.
The losses cut across state lines.
The losses were so staggering there was hardly a family who did not have a memory of a life cut short haunting them.
In the aftermath, there was one thing that unified nearly all American no matter where they came from or what they looked like:
It was a Reconstruction that was riddled with imperfections and even yes, injustices, but together we started with the one thing we could agree on: honoring our war dead as we had to move forward with only their memories.
Sometimes, in the safety and plenty here, we can forget it can vanish. We can forget that our freedom requires vigilance. It requires, at times, those who are willing to leave their homes and comforts behind and embrace the hardships of war. And some of those who make the sacrifice, sacrifice all.
And those left behind must rebuild.
Memorial Day used to be May 30, a day chosen, as the story goes, because all over the USA, flowers would be in bloom, allowing those who could, to honor their lost family members by decorating their graves, or their stones commemorating a lost grave, somewhere out there.
It turned into a three-day weekend in 1971, and unofficially became the start of summer.
But Memorial Day, born out of loss, was always meant to do three things:
- Honor those who sacrificed all so we can live free.
- Comfort those who continue to live and grow with memories where once there was a loved one.
- Remind ourselves, and be grateful for the freedom we live under. Freedom that, at times, does require courageous people to choose hardship of war, or potential war, over comfort of home so that others will not have the war arrive at home.
Is it a time that we will gather with friends and family? Sure.
Is it a time we will open our grills and pools and laugh and enjoy some extra time together? Sure.
I don’t think any veteran would begrudge that. It’s part of what they chose to fight to protect.
For a moment, sometime this weekend, might I ask that we all pause and remember that freedom was hard to win, it’s difficult to maintain, and it’s impossible to guarantee without remembering how we got it in the first place, and what it cost on so many levels.
In 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act, signed by President Clinton, encourages all Americans to pause at 3p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in the service of our nation.
As a historian, may I also encourage you that if you know a veteran, and they are willing to talk about those who never made it home, ask for their stories, to keep these men and women alive. It doesn’t have to be the story of how they didn’t return, but rather, who they were while they served together.
They deserve to be remembered. And we, those of us who remain in our freedom in part because of them, need to remember, and remember to be grateful. Whatever our flaws as individuals, communities, and a nation, we still strive to preserve our freedom for ourselves, and our children.