The meaning of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is the most meaningful of our national holidays.  Maybe it is the only one that has any meaning.  The Fourth of July is no longer an occasion for listening to patriotic speeches on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence; we watch fireworks displays, but don’t necessarily remember what the displays are for.  Thanksgiving is a time for feasting and maybe for expressing gratitude for our blessings, but nobody except maybe school children remember the Pilgrims and their quest for religious freedom.  Presidents Day, combining Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, is an insult to both of our national heroes.  The only national hero to whom we pay any respect at all is Martin Luther King Jr.

But it is well that we celebrate Memorial Day, originally created to honor the Union dead in the Civil War and now to honor all who have fallen in our nation’s wars.  The men (and now women) in the uniformed services pledge to put their very lives at the service of their community.  As somebody once pointed out to me, the armed services are the only institution in which you can be ordered to do something that is almost certain to get you killed, and it is a felony to refuse to obey that order.

Even if you think a particular war is a mistake, even if you think most wars are a mistake, even if you think all wars are wrong, you have to respect that patriotism and dedication.  Soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and other troops serve at the orders of the President and Congress, who are accountable to we, the people.  The troops do not send themselves into battle.  If a war is wrong, the responsibility rests not with the troops, but with we, the people.

The American military has another virtue, and that is deference to civilian authority.  They’re not in the habit of staging military coups.  The military in many other countries, including our Latin American neighbors, regard themselves as the repository of national patriotism, with the right to take over when the civilian authority is on the wrong path.

Our American exceptionalism reflects the greatness of the first commander-in-chief, George Washington.  He always followed the orders of the Continental Congress, no matter how much he disagreed.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, he was so popular he could easily have made himself king or dictator.  Some people proposed that he do so, and, given the serious disarray of the newly-independent states, there were strong arguments in favor.  The liberators of many Latin American nations did just that.  But Washington disbanded the army and went home to Mount Vernon, to await the call of a legal civilian government.   That has been the tradition of our military ever since.

The oath that the members of our armed forces swear is not personal loyalty to a dictator or king or the armed forces themselves, but to the Constitution of the United States, which they swear to support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  Over the generations, they have kept that oath.  It is their willingness to sacrifice their lives which won independence for the United States as a nation, preserved the Union from being broken up and kept the nation free from foreign monarchs and dictators.  We the people can show our gratitude by honoring the memory of the dead, attending to the needs of living veterans and each, in our own way, supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States.

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