While official observance of Memorial Day – then Decoration Day – began in 1868, the seeds of our national day of remembrance were planted five years earlier, in a small Pennsylvania college town during the fall of 1863 when a backwoods lawyer struggled to define the nature of sacrifice and dedication, utilizing a little over 250 hastily-chosen, but carefully-crafted, words to make his point. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address became the gold standard by which all tributes to fallen heroes and the causes for which they fight are judged. Nearly a century and a half later, no one has more clearly defined the character of this nation, or of the valiant warriors who risk everything in the defense of that vague ideal we call liberty, than the sixteenth president of the United States did on that distant day.
In the course of two minutes – a speech so brief that a photograph of the event could not be recorded for posterity with the cumbersome equipment in use at the time – Lincoln both clarified America’s mission and advanced a theorem describing our character, eloquently summarizing the ideals of a young nation that was then not yet a century old and defining the principles that would guide it guide it for a century more to come. Eighty-five powerful words formed the crescendo of that speech; eighty-five words that once resonated in the soul of virtually every American, but which now serve to define the deep divisions emblematic of the ongoing conflict for our nation’s soul:
“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…”
Actions, Lincoln said, speak far louder than words. What ultimately mattered is “what they did here.” Their work – their bloody work – was “nobly advanced” and in doing so “they gave the last full measure of devotion…” The vast majority of Americans in 1863 instinctively understood these tenets, just as they did in 1776 and the as they would in 1963. For almost two centuries the nobility, the devotion and the selflessness of those who defended America and who protected liberty was never a matter of debate, except in the most extreme and obscure, dusty corners of American thought. At Gettysburg, Lincoln brought this part of our national character into its sharpest focus.
But what of the rest of us: the civilians who form the preponderance of any populace? What of those of us who are protected by the noble few standing ready to give their last full measure of devotion? How might we honor these brave defenders of liberty?
Lincoln was the consummate American president, a principled pragmatist. In answering that question, Lincoln recognized both the need to defend representative government and the powerful forces aligned in opposition to doing so. The simple message that he delivered at Gettysburg powerfully reinforced the former and skillfully undermined the latter. Americans, he declared, are not so foolish as to risk – and ultimately give – the “last full measure of devotion” for anything less than a cause worth that ultimate sacrifice. If such sacrifices were to have meaning, then the public has an obligation not just to honor the causes that cost these heroes their lives, but to increase their own devotion to such causes. Anything less would dishonor those we had lost, tantamount to declaring that their sacrifices had been in vain.
For nearly two hundred years, no American would claim that anyone who fell in combat defending our nation had died in vain, much less to even suggest that doing so was anything less than honorable. Then came the dreadful decade of the 1960s, and all that went with it: disillusionment, self-doubt and despair. In military and geo-political terms, America was no longer the underdog, as we had been since the nation was founded. Liberals, who had previously not only supported our military efforts around the world, but who had in fact been responsible for getting us into most of our conflicts for idealistic (and honorable) reasons, soured on the idea that America could protect the downtrodden and spread liberty about the globe. After spending two centuries supporting America’s efforts to defend the notion of freedom against powerful would-be oppressors, the left took one look at the war in Viet Nam and concluded that we were no longer the underdog, upstart nation that King George, Santa Ana, the Kaiser and Hitler had sneered at. We were now the dominant power on the globe and, it followed, we must therefore now be an oppressor ourselves. And, if that point needed to be reinforced, there was also this: our sworn enemy – the only other super-power on earth – was a nation that had embraced the liberal dream of replacing capitalism with statism. For the left, by fighting in Viet Nam, not only was America flexing its newly-found muscle as bullies always do, we were putting the collectivist, socialist ideal in grave danger.
And so, what had been unconscionable in 1960 became common-place, and in some quarters fashionable, by 1970: the devotion and selflessness of those who served our nation in combat wasn’t merely questioned. We zoomed past self-doubt into something far more insidious. The combatants themselves were ridiculed, mocked and insulted. America abandoned honor in the sixties, and with it, lost her soul. The ideal that Lincoln had so eloquently expressed, that of taking increased devotion to a cause for which heroes had made the ultimate sacrifice, was replaced in liberal quarters by the notion that the warriors serving such a cause were as foul as the cause supposedly was itself.
Today, the left has backed off of that ugly mindset somewhat, but only somewhat. As our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line to fight fundamentalist, fascist extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan, this latest generation of noble American warriors have been transformed in progressive eyes from dangerous co-conspirators to unwitting dupes. To the left, those serving in the armed forces are merely that segment of our society that could not find a better job flipping burgers. The notion that these brave Americans might actually believe in their mission never occurs to the average liberal. Accordingly, no “increased devotion” is necessary on their part. There is only an exit strategy to pursue.
Here on the right, we see the valor of our troops in entirely different terms. Their devotion means that we must rededicate ourselves to ensuring the success of their mission. Their sacrifices require that we ensure those sacrifices are not in vain. Their courage demands our commitment. For, on this day, and every Memorial Day, there is only one reason that Americans willingly place themselves in harm’s way on distant shores: that we “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.” Nothing less will – or should – do.