Accompanying the usual Memorial Day observances these days is an increasing criticism that Americans are not paying enough attention to the sacrifices of the military.
Writing in today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Charles Blow gives voice to the tension that arises on days like Memorial Day — is it really possible to properly observe the sacrifices of soldiers without endorsing the wars that sent them to slaughter?
And is having a burger and beer today sacrilegious?
Some of our wars are those of disastrous execution, others of deceptive inception, some a bit of both, but they are all ours.
Yet we are drifting away from this tradition of honoring sacrifice. The public in general and the elected officials who have sanctioned and sustained our wars, sometimes over substantial public objection, have a diminishing personal stake on the battlefields — few of their own lives and the lives of their children, siblings and spouses.
President Obama isn’t a military veteran, nor are many of the presidential hopefuls who have declared or might declare a run for the White House in 2016.
Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have never served. Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal have not either. Only Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham and Jim Webb have.
Veteran Jennie Haskamp sees the problem with the disconnect between those in the military and those who aren’t.
That’s when it hit me. I’m angry. I’ve come to realize people think Memorial Day is the official start of summer. It’s grilled meat, super-duper discounts, a day (or two) off work, beer, potato salad and porches draped in bunting.
How is it then, some century and a half later, after more than a decade of war in two countries that claimed the lives of some 6,861 Americans, we are collectively more concerned with having a barbecue and going shopping than pausing to appreciate the cost of our freedom to do so?
In truth, of course, you can do both today. You can also pause to reflect on why we send kids off to war, and how we brand those who oppose it.
And that’s the confrontation the Washington Post tackles head-on in its editorial today — separating the soldier from the mission.
In assessing what we owe dead soldiers, the Post considers what we don’t owe – unconditional loyalty.
We owe them lasting honor for what they give up for their country, for lives cut short in youth or destroyed by physical or mental wounds. But the greater debt is for certain freedoms defended — freedom from the demand for loyalty without moral boundaries, from unquestioning obedience to higher orders and from discipline without law or mercy.
The debt we owe is still growing today, and it is beyond our means to repay in full. Abraham Lincoln stated it succinctly at Gettysburg with his series of negatives: “We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.” As Lincoln had it, the greater part of that work had been done by the war dead, and completing it was more than a matter of speeches, ceremonies and memorial statuary. It was, and is, a steady and abiding commitment to government chosen by, conducted by and dedicated to the good of its people, and a willingness to sacrifice to ensure the survival of that form of government — including the minimal but often neglected obligation to pay attention to what our leaders are doing, to listen and speak out and vote. In short, to make the thing work.
And, we might add, to come together for common pleasures that reaffirm our identity as one people. Often on Memorial Day people complain about the inattention to the holiday’s deeper meaning as millions of Americans take to the beaches or the woods or the charcoal grill. But that is life, and it is freedom, the kind of things those at war write home about, the normality they longed to return to after living so long in what one U.S. pilot called “a world of death.” There will be homages today, many of them. There will also be the pursuit of happiness, and perhaps those who are being honored wouldn’t mind that at all.