Memorial Day, as has been noted before, is the unofficial start of summer, a pre-solstice revelry of warm weather and outdoor fun. For many of us, myself thoroughly included, it’s a long-anticipated 3-day weekend, a barbecue bacchanalia, a day to relax and unwind.
But we’re all too aware there’s a somber, almost sacred subtext to the holiday, one we know we can’t rightfully forget or ignore. Memorial Day isn’t merely a recognition to those who wear or wore the uniform, as is Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day. Memorial Day is the day of remembrance for those who never made it home.
In post-Vietnam America, military service has become strangely fetishized, Soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines, and the officers who lead them, are placed upon pedestals to a degree unknown heretofore in our nation’s history. It’s a strange phenomenon, and in some undefinable way (to me at least), it’s unseemly. The U.S. military shares relevant traits with most large organizations: peopled by mostly good folks, a few not so good ones, by no means infallible, and hopefully mostly well meaning.
It is the professional, all-volunteer armed wing of the world’s oldest democracy. It has been, and probably frequently always will be, ill-used by its political masters. It has been used dishonorably, yet on the individual level, honor abounds. Historically such forces are used to build empires and to seize wealth (“Gold will not always bring you good soldiers,” said Machiavelli “but good soldiers will always bring you gold“). That tendency hasn’t been unknown in the history of the United States armed forces but when it happens it triggers outcry and revulsion, within the ranks and without.
Our forces serve best, and we support them best, when they’re mobilized to serve the greater good. They’re rescuers and protectors. In the worst of times and in the heat of battle they can be depended upon, unlike the overwhelming majority of their peers worldwide, to preserve the lives of innocents caught in the crossfire. That is honor.
Valor is a particularly military concept of honor. It encompasses bravery, yet goes beyond. It does not imply fearlessness, because fear is part and parcel of warfare. But it implies the grit and ability to subsume fear, and to do the necessary, even at the risk of one’s own life.
And all too often that risk solidifies, and “the last full measure of devotion,” as Lincoln said, is given.
To all American service men and women, past and future, whose lives are lost in the course of their duties, this day is dedicated. Thank you.