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Memorial Day 2015

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“But, nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes[1]

In 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes was asked to deliver the Memorial Day speech to a group of veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. Holmes had served as a volunteer in the Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the battles he fought in were among the bloodiest of the Civil War: Ball’s Bluff, the Peninsular Campaign, Antietam, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Monocacy. He was wounded numerous times, suffered terribly from dysentery and finally returned home as a brevet Colonel when his regiment was disbanded. He went on to a distinguished legal career as a celebrated Supreme Court Justice and died on his 94th birthday of pneumonia. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, to forever rest next to his honored brothers-in-arms.

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On that blustery day in May 1884, Mr. Holmes stood before a crowd of veterans, men who had shared his dangers and hardships. But the judge did not indulge in the easy sentiments of shared memories, in merely evoking the old times and the old comrades long gone. Instead he reflected on Memorial Day itself and why all Americans, not just those touched by war, should celebrate it. The great New Englander said:

“Memorial Day may and ought to have a meaning also for those who do not share our memories. When men have instinctively agreed to celebrate an anniversary, it will be found that there is some thought of feeling behind it which is too large to be dependent upon associations alone.”

To Mr. Holmes, the Memorial Day celebration was not just about remembering our honored dead; it was a reaffirmation of what they died for. It was a national act of unity and faith, like the Pledge of Allegiance solemnly repeated by the whole American people on this day. To volunteer for war, a person must believe with their whole heart and soul that what they are fighting for is right, for war demands every last exertion of body, mind and spirit a person can give. And war is the great equalizer: for it consumes in its bloody maw the virtuous and the wicked, the rich and the poor, the genius and the fool. To face that fact, to understand the terrible truth that you may do everything right and still die, and yet to return to the charge time and time again demands the utmost love. For only love can conquer the natural, biological fear of death:  love of the comrades beside you in the trenches, first and foremost; love of those you have left behind, that you fight to defend; and the knowledge that the cause you fight for is the just cause.

It comes as no surprise that Americans have won every war we have ever fought in a just cause and only lost those of that were morally questionable.

We are a generation that does not know war. Our parents had the Vietnam War and the draft, and almost all who were called came forward willingly. More than 3 million Americans served in Southeast Asia and 1.5 million saw combat. More than 10 million Americans served in our grandparent’s generation to crush fascism in Europe and Asia. Our generation only knows war through the news; and our children will know it through video games. That is an awful portent: for our generation feels the fear or war and terror, but not the pride and self-confidence of facing down that fear, combating it and overcoming it. Fear is a terrible counselor.

Fewer Americans have served in our current wars, as a proportion of population, than any previous generation. We have increasingly outsourced war, turned national service into something for those without any other economic prospects or else a for profit venture of mercenary armies like Blackwater’s. Is this the America our forefathers gave their lives for?

This Memorial Day weekend you will hear many speeches and see many stirring images of flags and graves and men in uniform. It is wholly appropriate that we pause to honor our dead; they died for us after all. Dare to question those who speak the loudest and wrap themselves tightest in the flag: where was your service? How have you honored our brothers and sisters in arms? More than 10,000 veterans have committed suicide and over a million have passed through Veterans Affairs, which is in a state of collapse and disrepute because we talk of supporting our troops but refuse them the taxes to fund it adequately.

Even more important than remembrance of the dead is the consecration of the living to the fight that remains for us to win. The one that every generation must win for itself: to preserve freedom, to defend democracy, to promote justice and equality, to punish wickedness and tyranny, to expand the empire of liberty. We shall not be the generation that created a police state because we were too weak to fight ourselves and too afraid to bear the consequences. We will not make our children slaves.

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The last words as the first words belong to Oliver Wendell Holmes:

 “But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death–of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.”


 

Sources and Notes

[1] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire”, an address delivered for Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, at Keene, NH, before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic

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“Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.“

John Adams

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