What Memorial Day Should Be Is A Re-Focus

American flags stand in front of headstones in Arlington National Cemetery during Flags-In, May 26, 2016, in Arlington, Va. Members of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) place an American flag at each headstone in ANC before Memorial Day. (U.S. Army Photo by Rachel Larue/Arlington National Cemetery/released)
American flags stand in front of headstones in Arlington National Cemetery during Flags-In, May 26, 2016, in Arlington, Va. Members of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) place an American flag at each headstone in ANC before Memorial Day. (U.S. Army Photo by Rachel Larue/Arlington National Cemetery/released)

“Oh, tell me not that they are dead – that generous host, that airy army of invisible heroes.  They hover as a cloud of witnesses above this nation.  Are they dead that yet speak louder than we can speak, and a more universal language?  Are they dead that yet act?  Are they dead that yet move upon society, and inspire the people with nobler motives, and more heroic patriotism?” – Henry Ward Beecher

I wanted to say a few words as the nation gears up for Memorial Day weekend.  I won’t go into the commercialization of what should be a day of remembrance, as I think RE Factor has already made their stance abundantly clear, but on what I believe Memorial Day really means.

As humans, we tend to be drawn to specific days of celebration or remembrance.  Completely appropriate, really – having a specific day set aside helps us focus and call a pause in our busy lives, bringing the sacrifices of our war dead front and center.  But honoring the dead must be far more than a day of ceremonies, and must never be relegated to a simple day off from work and some great deals on disposable consumer products.

What Memorial Day should be is a re-focus.  America is a gigantic experiment.  The Founders came from a wide variety of backgrounds, where they had suffered under the tyranny of monarchs, the ruling class, and the ruling religion.  What they endeavored to establish, though flawed as all human creations are, was a nation that enshrined freedom in its very DNA:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” – Declaration of Independence

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” – Preamble to the Constitution of the United States

As we honor the sacrifices made by our military from the beginning of our nation until now, that desire to honor them should drive us every day to make this experiment work.  What America should look like will always be fiercely debated – the role of government, taxes and spending, our role in the world, the use of our military might.  But it seems as of late, more and more of that debate is taking place through decidedly partisan lenses, where allegiance to party trumps allegiance to country, where questioning the group’s or party’s “approved” ideology is grounds to be derided and shunned, and where reaching out to others from across the lines in order to help out our fellow citizens and build up our country results in becoming a pariah.  “Government by the people, of the people, for the people” cannot survive amongst people who cannot see beyond themselves and their petty party or group allegiances.

A Green Beret rings the memorial bell each time a name is called from the final manifest to honor those passed during the 1st SFC(A) 48th annual Memorial Day ceremony on May 25, 2016 on Fort Bragg NC. Services members and families attended the annual Memorial Day ceremony to honor fallen Soldiers of 1SFC(A) and veterans from the Special Forces Association. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jeremie Lee /Released)
A Green Beret rings the memorial bell each time a name is called from the final manifest to honor those passed during the 1st SFC(A) 48th annual Memorial Day ceremony on May 25, 2016 on Fort Bragg NC. Services members and families attended the annual Memorial Day ceremony to honor fallen Soldiers of 1SFC(A) and veterans from the Special Forces Association. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jeremie Lee /Released)

I can’t pretend to speak for the motives of the dead, but if polls of today’s military are any indication, some of the primary motivators for joining the military are a desire to serve and a desire to be part of something bigger than the individual, something that is making a difference.  On Memorial Day, as you honor the dead, remember that America is bigger than you, and be that difference.  Get involved in your neighborhood, your local community, and your state and national government.  Volunteer, give, vote, teach the younger generations what the American experiment is all about.  That is what truly honors those who gave all for the nation.

On Memorial Day, enjoy your time with family and friends.  The dead would no doubt do the same.  But take the time to remember what they died for.  Then go out and live for it.

For more information about the history of Memorial Day, see the Veteran’s Administration website.

For a list of events at national cemeteries on Memorial day, see the National Cemetery Administration website.

About the author

Joel is an 12 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.

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