I suppose the timing of Memorial Day, on the cusp between spring and summer, explains part of the confusion, but there is more at hand here. Memorial Day is not a holiday celebrating the start of summer. Far from it. In reality, Memorial Day is less a day of celebration, and more a day intended to be one of honoring and remembrance. Who are we honoring and remembering? Military veterans? Well yes, but not quite. There is a day on which we are to honor all those who have worn the uniform of the United States of America. That day was established in November 1919, and is now known as Veterans Day. Memorial Day is more specific in its focus. Memorial Day is intended to honor this nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who did not return home alive – or return at all – from service in defense of our nation. Have we earned this? Can we earn this? No. Such selfless devotion is always a gift beyond what is owed to any of us. But, as a nation, we can strive to be more grateful and more worthy.
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
In the Words of the Founding General
Following the Civil War, on 5 May 1868, commanding U.S. Army General John A. Logan issued General Order 11 establishing Memorial Day. He wrote: “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” In General Logan’s order, he continued:
“What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” [Emphasis added.]
I salute the wisdom of General Logan, and the example of reverence that he displayed for the fallen. It it right and necessary to set aside a day of national remembrance of the “cost of a free and undivided republic.” We should take heed as well, that the “ravages of time” have placed our liberties in jeopardy once again and they have fostered a resurgence of lawlessness and even evil within this land of the free.
Some Gave All
Back when our schools taught about the responsibilities of active citizenship in a grand republic, there was less confusion about the blessings that come with living in America. Decades of instruction in honoring one’s self and a culture of victimhood has diminished our gratitude for those who have served, as well as our national understanding of the special significance of Memorial Day. It was perhaps 30 years ago now that first I saw reprinted in a magazine the image below. The image is entitled, “What Did You Do Today?” Drawn in 1943 by Frederic Stanley, the graphic was created for the Office of Civilian Defense and published across America. It posed a question that the nation should still be asking: “What did I do today for freedom?” In the full poster image, the wording goes on to say: “Today, at the front, he died… Today, what did you do?”
To say this image moved me is beyond an understatement. I cut it out and I saved it as a reminder. You can still see the folds of the paper in the scanned copy. It is an image that saddens me, yet inspires me – to among other things – to be grateful. The hand of this fallen American serviceman, who to the very end was trying to claw his way forward, embodies the very essence of courage, devotion, and sacrifice. In the words of the songwriter: “All gave some. Some gave all.” On this day in particular – I express my gratitude to those who did not safely come home – and to their Gold Star Families. I am unworthy of such devotion – but I continue to strive to live in a way that helps me to be less unworthy.
According to former U.S. Air Force combat photographer and writer Blake Stilwell: “Since the Revolutionary War ended, 646,596 American troops have died in battle and more than 539,000 died from other, non-combat related causes.” This Memorial Day we can tell our children the meaning of this day – and remind ourselves. We can stand in defense of the very values and freedoms that others have lost their lives defending. I also encourage all to read the call to revival from Steve Deace: “Do What You Believe: Or You Won’t Be Free to Believe It Much Longer.”
A Memorial Day Lesson From Film
The film “Saving Private Ryan,” comes to my mind more on Memorial Day than any other. The film is best known for its exceptionally realistic portrayal of the allied invasion at Normandy, France on D-Day against the occupying Nazis army during the Second World War. Those scenes in the film capture with the power of moving pictures the intensity of the 1943 Frederic Stanley graphic, “What Did You Do Today?” The main story of the film is that of a small band of U.S. Army combat soldiers being sent, in great danger, to find another soldier, Private James Francis Ryan of Iowa, so that Ryan can be sent safely home. While the Normandy scenes are remarkable, I remain profoundly impacted by five other scenes in the film as well. Below I list these scenes in sequence.
First, is the scene of a mother standing in the kitchen of an Iowa farmhouse watching an army car coming up the road. As the mother watches an army officer and military chaplain exit the car, she collapses to her knees on her front porch before they even speak a word. She knows she has lost a least one of her four sons – and she learns that she has lost three.
Second, the film has U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall (played by actor Harve Presnell) read from a true-life letter of condolence to Mrs. Bixby from President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Five of her children had been killed in battle in defense of the union. In part Lincoln wrote in 1863: “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
Third, when the small contingent of soldiers under Captain John Miller (played by actor Tom Hanks) finally locates Private Ryan (played by actor Matt Damon), he is part of a similarly small band of soldiers ordered to defend a strategically important bridge. When told that the unit searching for him, to send him home, had lost two of its members, Ryan asks their names, and notes the bizarre nature of the mission to find him. “That doesn’t make any sense.” Ryan is told that his three brothers have all been killed. Still, Ryan tells Captain Miller that he has no intention of leaving his own undermanned unit – as the German Army is soon expected to attack. Captain Miller in the attempt to meet his mission – and persuade Ryan to leave the battle area – asks: “Is that what they are supposed to tell your mother when they hand her another folded American flag?” To which Ryan responds: “Tell her that when you found me I was with the only brothers I have left.” What powerful imagery.
Fourth, with the help of Captain Miller’s unit, Ryan and his unit have made a defense, down to the last, of the bridge. The German Army is moments away from taking the bridge when additional reinforcements arrive. Captain Miller, himself mortally wounded, pulls Ryan close and whispers to him: “Earn this.” Earn the lives lost in Captain Miller’s unit as they fought to the death beside Ryan – saving Ryan’s life.
Fifth, in the closing scene of the film we return to the opening scene of the film – an old man standing in front of a grave in an American military cemetery in France. When the film began this scene faded into the invasion of Normandy and the audience was misled into thinking the present day old man was Captain Miller. When we return to this scene, we know now the old man is Private Ryan. As he stands before the grave of Captain Miller, in desperation Ryan speaks to his wife: “Tell me I have lived a good life. Tell me I am a good man.” Moments earlier Ryan had spoken quietly to Captain Miller: “Everyday I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that at least in your eyes, I earned what all of you have done for me.” Now he was still seeking reassurance that he has sought to be true to the admonition to “earn this.” If we pause a moment to ponder, surely we can identify with this concern. Have we done enough to live a good life worthy of the sacrifices made by others to live free?
The Words Written Down Long Ago
Honor, remember, and celebrate the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness made possible this Memorial Day. Let us remember as well the instruction provided to us on 19 November 1863 by President Lincoln as he spoke at the national cemetery being dedicated in Gettysburg:
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.“
If We Are Honest
As noted by President Lincoln – the duty to carry on the unfinished work of liberty rests with us the living. The obligation to remember those who have perished in the struggle of freedom remains ours. And as our current spring moves into summer, let us remember those who made that possible.
We must always struggle to be worthy of such sacrifice. Too many have fallen into a sense of entitlement. As a people, we were once far more grateful for the gift of this nation, and we recognized and celebrated the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness granted to us in this land by our Creator.
Men and women of every race have worn the uniform of the United States, and a great many have perished. On this day we should pause, express gratitude, and recommit ourselves to the ideals of this nation to which others have given the last full measure of devotion.
In the end, we must never forget this lesson on the depth of love and sacrifice expressed best by our Savior: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13, The Bible, ESV).
On this day and always, may we seek God’s grace and blessing for all those fallen in the defense of goodness and liberty.
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