Memorial Day is about honor.
We, as a nation, set aside this one day a year to honor those who sacrificed all — men and women who gave everything in the name of protecting and serving the country. In the process, we make sure to honor all those veterans who remain, whether they can trace their military record back to the days of World War II, or have just returned from deployment in far-away lands.
It is, put simply, the least we can do.
But there’s another way we can honor those who gave everything so we can live our lives as free as possible: Never take that freedom or the price at which it has been purchased for granted. We, as a country, must strive to be worthy of what our national heroes gave.
The military has never been free of the challenges faced by society as a whole. It is an institution of men and women, as capable of missteps and mistakes as the rest. From the time before the American Revolution to this day, the military, like the country itself, has been seeking ways to grow and evolve, recording a series of successes and failures along the way.
Yet, when one visits the graves of fallen military men and women, or peruses the biographies of those who died for the “American dream,” what becomes obvious is that there is no label to encompass them, other than American. The names speak to all different ethnicities and backgrounds, from those who could trace their ancestors back to the first travelers on the Mayflower to many whose parents arrived only a short time ago, ready to make a better life for themselves and their children.
Some had wealth, others were poor. They came from every part of the country, from the boroughs of New York to the beaches of California. They represented every aspect of our society. And each one died protecting this nation.
There are some common threads that seem to bind all veterans together, including a well-honed sense of patriotism. They joined the military to serve their country. Those who faced combat, however, will tell you almost exclusively that, when they put their lives on the line, they did so for the person next to them. They did so for their fellow soldiers.
There’s been a lot written over the last few years about the political and cultural divides of our moment. Yes, this nation is built on disagreement and debate, and throughout our history that debate has often turned ugly, even violent. Since before our nation split from the “mother country” of Britain, the culture being formed here was a rougher, less-refined version of what could be found in London. We remain in many ways a rough, blunt people willing to engage in heated disagreements.
Yet the concern of the moment is not that we disagree, but that we so distrust and even despise those with whom we disagree, the “other side” becomes “the enemy.” Studies have shown that Americans are beginning to self-sort in a way, closing up their bubbles of friends, even family, to ensure that no dissent on the “big issues” seeps into our everyday lives.
By doing so, we risk creating two countries — red and blue — utterly disconnected from each other.
We are, thankfully, a ways a way from that reality. But it would be good to recall that the heroes we honor this weekend didn’t fight just for some Americans, or to protect just some people’s rights, or offer some people the chance to pursue the American dream. Those who died protecting our freedoms did so for an ideal, true for all who call this country home. They died for the person next to them, rarely caring about that person’s race or voting record or family heritage.
We have problems in our country at the moment … but it’s our country. It’s one country. It’s the one so many have fought and died to preserve. Let us not let them down.