Why Memorial Day is Worth Celebrating
From the first settlers dying at the hands of an alien enemy’s war club, to a draftee killed by a Wehrmacht mortar in the Hürtgen Forest, to the young surfer hit by an EFP outside of Najaf, America’s sons have fought and died for two and a half centuries in a myriad of wars. Despite the soft visions forced on us by modern media and the internet, at our core we are a warrior people. For better and for worse, Americans fight.
The veterans of the Global War on Terror share some of the same dilemmas as the veterans of the Vietnam War. How do you honor the dead of a deeply unpopular, political war that is generally viewed as a failure? The difference is that none of us was drafted to fight the GWOT. We made a choice – to give up a more or less comfortable existence at home to share camaraderie and danger together. We knew what we were doing. We knew Iraq and Afghanistan would never become post-war Germany and Japan. Yet we signed up nonetheless.
It is easy for veterans of the GWOT to look back on two decades of warfare with bitterness. To feel betrayed by the government, by the military, and even by our own countrymen. To have seen so many lives wasted for little gain is one of the greatest current blemishes on the contract between the Government and the People.
But resentment and bitterness are not fitting for veterans. Modern culture encourages self-victimization. It is also the exact opposite of what the dead would have wanted, and the easiest way to turn one casualty into two, and then into a bigger problem still. The nation looks to its veterans for moral authority, and if veterans show nothing but self-centered despair it saps our nation of the warrior spirit it needs.
The sacrifices of our fallen soldiers gave the nation of Afghanistan two decades to attempt to create a better society. The fact that the government squandered that opportunity does not take away from the nobility of the effort. It is the same opportunity that each generation of fallen Americans has passed on. The men who died in the Argonne had no guarantee that the America they were leaving behind would continue to be the America they loved, but they were giving America the opportunity to fight for its soul. Their lives and deeds are worthy of celebration, for they are what sets America apart. Their willingness to fight and die should be embraced, and celebrated.
Dying in battle isn’t itself noble. Those of us that have seen death on the battlefield know how random and ugly it is. It is better to survive and win, but men do not control our own fate. The old Emerson poem honoring Chief Tecumseh says it best: “When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”
The message strikes at the heart of our modern existential struggles. We’ve lived lives of incredible comfort, secure in the belief that nothing can shake us from our perches atop the civilizations of the world. For people in the modern West, death means missing out on the best of times, so death is feared more than anything. But this mindset would have shocked the people who built the West a century before. Our ancestors understood that some things were worth fighting and dying for. Not death, but the loss of this courage is what should strike fear into the hearts of free men.
This is why celebrating our fallen is more important than ever. We are not honoring their “glorious death in battle,” but their willingness to stand and fight for what they believed was important. We also celebrate them in order to fill our countrymen with the reassurance that they are not alone, and that good men and women are still willing to fight and die. Reassured in the knowledge we will stand side by side, facing whatever comes. In the end death comes for everyone, but “a coward dies a thousand times before his death.”
Celebrating bravery and sacrifice does not trivialize death, nor does it pretend that every death is for a noble cause. It celebrates nobility of spirit and reinforces it in all of us. We honor the memories of the dead in order to remind our countrymen that to stand and to fight is itself to be celebrated as a testament to the American will, and the spirit of free men who will never surrender. Two and a half centuries of Americans who have died in order to pass on that opportunity are counting on us.
As long as there are free men willing to fight and die for the noblest ideals of America, there will be an America worth fighting and dying for, and the men who have returned home wrapped in America’s flag will have not died in vain. So go, enjoy your barbecues, watch your children play outside, join the communities you have built, to celebrate those who are gone, and to create something great for those who are yet to come.