Members of my family have fought in most of America’s wars, beginning with the Revolution. Fortunately, as far as I know, only one was lost, on the killing fields of the Bataan Death March. Whether it was on the outskirts of Boston or the rice-padies of Vietnam, my family have put their lives on the line to secure the liberty we take for granted. Their sacrifices make my daily media battles seem superfluous. Are we even up to the task anymore?
Last week, it was reported that Beverly, MA was canceling its Memorial Day parade. The stated reason was that there weren’t enough active veterans to march in the parade. Set that aside for a moment. The purpose of Memorial Day is not to honor those who served in the military, but, rather, those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms. It is meant to honor those who “died on the field of honor.”
You don’t need living veterans to do that. What you do need, however, is a public that appreciates the sacrifice made.
We are far removed from war being an active part of our lives. When it hits our TV screens, it is mostly a function of special “Seal” teams or unmanned drones. The days when my great-grandfather inched his way through the forests of Bella Wood are long behind us. As a result, we are losing our hold on this special holiday.
In mid-May, I found myself in Lexington, VA for the graduation of the Virginia Military Institute and its annual tribute to the cadets lost at the Battle of New Market in 1864. I have no sympathy for the Confederate cause, but was touched by the emotional tribute paid to the 10 cadets who lost their lives that day. It is still the only time a school in the US has formed its own regiment going into battle. I disagree with their cause, but I can certainly honor their valor.
As the bagpipes played Amazing Grace across the parade grounds, I remember thinking, this is how these things should be remembered. Memorial Day is not about summer or grills or beaches, but remembering that thousands of people sacrificed their lives so that we could lead ours.
All of my family came back from America’s wars, save one. Private Robert Flynn died somewhere along the Bataan Death March. He managed, somewhat amazingly, to smuggle two letters out as he wasted away on the march. He never gave up. That said, he still died. That is what we remember on Monday. Those who died. So that we may live.
In the coming weeks, America’s school-children will take their year-end final exams. The exercise tests what they have learned throughout the year. When they put pencil to paper, I hope they give a thought to those who came before and made that possible. Memorial Day is our national final exam. How we honor the day tests whether or not we remember the lessons of how we got here.