Today is Memorial Day, a national holiday established long ago for Americans to honor the men and women of the nation's armed forces.
Although solemn ceremonies marking the occasion will be held all over the metropolitan area of Columbus, from Fort Benning to the Fort Mitchell National Cemetery, most of us will spend the three-day Memorial Day weekend with family and friends, watching the Braves or the Indianapolis 500, cooking out on backyard grills and celebrating the arrival of summer.
For many people in this area, as for many Americans, Memorial Day is merely the nominal centerpiece in a long weekend, a sort of transitional holiday in which the original purpose of the occasion — to honor those who have served in the U.S. military and who fought and died for the nation — has long been forgotten. We don't really honor the dead on Memorial Day anymore so much as we celebrate the living.
Perhaps that is the way it was meant to be. One of the ironic benefits of democracy, whose very existence, in so many ways, is a direct gift from those who have died to protect it, is that we are free to ignore or even to forget the sacrifices that make democracy possible. A profligate indifference to history is possible only in a society in which others are willing to die so that individual citizens are free to live without even being aware of the freedoms they enjoy.
Indeed, we have been free so long most of us cannot even imagine another state of existence. As a consequence, few of us think anymore of how precious freedom is, much less of how it was won and of the thousands of Americans who have died, from Lexington to the Persian Gulf, to see that it is preserved. Sadly, more than a few of us seem to think freedom is some sort of divine birthright, conferred upon the United States of America at its founding and guaranteed to all its citizens thereafter in perpetuity.
That is not what the men who fell on Lexington's green or Bunker Hill thought, nor would it have occurred to the men who suffered through the terrible winter at Valley Forge in 1777-78. In fact, freedom was still a dream when these men went to their graves that others might one day be free. And at Bull Run, where the streams ran red with the blood of Americans fighting other Americans, not a man who died believed his rights were guaranteed. Nor did those who perished in the hell-on-earth that was Antietam or Gettysburg or Chickamauga take their freedom for granted. They thought they were fighting — and dying — for freedom.
So did the thousands of American soldiers who fell at San Juan Hill, at Ardennes, Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry and St. Mihiel, and on Corregidor, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Iwo Jima and Tarawa. The men who went ashore at Anzio and Normandy and who fought their way through Europe thought they were doing it to free the enslaved from oppression and totalitarianism. When they died, they never dreamed we would forget the reason they fought.
Nor did the men who perished at Pearl Harbor or at Midway or in the Coral Sea believe the nation would ever forget their sacrifice, not because they believed themselves so important but because they believed freedom was.
So it was for the men who laid down their lives at Chongjin, Inchon, Hue, Khe Sanh and all across the peninsulas of Korea and Vietnam, and in the desert, mountain and urban battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, where, if American blood were any guarantor of freedom, all men and women there would be free. They are not free, of course, but we are.
And on this Memorial Day, we should all pause and remember how it is we came to be free, and thus keep faith with those who lie in Flanders fields where poppies blow between the crosses row on row.