Memorial Day has now come for the 51st time since it was officially proclaimed in 1967. It has been kept nationwide, though unofficially, since World War II, and as Decoration Day since 1868. It was born in spontaneous memorials early during the Civil War. Remembering war dead has been important throughout history, even as the manner of recognition has changed across time and societies.
As with many things cultural, I wonder about the layers of meaning in this universal expression of respect for those who have died in service to something we consider larger than any of us.
For those who have lost loved ones to war, the meaning is close and personal. We would remember them no matter what, but losing them in this way blends in pride and at times anger to the usual loss. No one who dies in war enjoyed their natural span of years in which to fully form and contribute. This is a greater loss the younger they are (and most are not very old).
Yet by and large, we experience greater appreciation than distress as we honor our fallen. We are looking beyond the impact of death on them and to their impact on our lives. In many cases, such as the Civil War and World Wars I and II, the men (and, more recently, women) who died, along with the greater number of their fellows who survived, changed the course of history to our benefit.
Can lives lost always be weighed against lives saved? If we can reckon those numbers, perhaps so. That is, unless there was another, less costly way to save them, which we may speculate on but is ultimately unknowable.
We may not believe in the justice of a war. But we don’t blame the dead, because the fallen are victims too. We should have learned by now not to blame the survivors, who could easily have become their guiltless dead friends. Memorial Day is not one on which we call anyone to account.
Nor is it a day for the dead; their watch has ended. They gain nothing from our praise. It is really a day for the living who remember them.
So what does memorializing do for us? Psychologically, a great deal. The act of remembering someone we knew keeps them closer despite the unfathomable gulf between life and death. It keeps the memory of them fresher, the more it is exercised. It softens the hard edges of loss by lessening the intensity of their absence. They are still with us, at least this much.
That makes sense personally, as individuals. What of the cultural pull to gather at cemeteries, to march in and watch parades, to recall and celebrate the gift these people unintentionally made us? This is the greatest gift of all, that of one’s life and future.
The sacrifice of so many lives across so many generations of Americans is typically framed as the cost of keeping America free and whole. Freedom isn’t free, as an exceptional epigrammist once said. But is it worth that price?
One argument in favor is based on outcomes. Winning the Revolution, the Civil War and World War II made America, held it together and kept it safe. The battles for westward growth were probably inevitable given the pressure to expand, and ultimately likely for better than worse for the most people. Other wars may not have affected America’s welfare as dramatically, but have often shown our willingness to try to help others too. In every case, when America wins, the rest of the world becomes more secure, too.
However, we don’t subdivide our battle dead by war, theater or era. They all mean the same. I think we are reminding ourselves of something deeper and more fundamental about life on this earth, especially about our lives as citizens of the freest and most democratic and opportunity-filled nation in history.
It’s not just that our freedom isn’t free, but that this world is not America anywhere but here. It is harsher, more divisive, and much more threatening than we ordinarily contemplate, much less experience. The cost of maintaining our country’s “way of life”, as hackneyed as that phrase has become, actually is constant vigilance and readiness to defend it. Being ready to defend it means finding that we often must, against dangers that our vigilance discovers.
The consequences of a world without guns or of being unwilling to use them are the same. The mighty prevail. America’s gift that underpins Memorial Day is our willingness to use our Might on behalf of what we, sometimes uncertainly, see as Right, for ourselves and others.
America is a nation defined by its founding documents and the course of its history built upon them. It is the idea that those principles matter more than anyone’s or any group’s success, which makes it possible for more individuals of more groups than ever before to achieve their own, unique successes. It is the reality that we have something unequalled in the world that can only be maintained by fidelity to our exceptionalism in these ways.
And, finally, America is the people who are willing to uphold those values by giving themselves to the fight for them. These include all of us who vote, respect our laws and keep faithful to our founding ideals. They are all us who care, who argue, who split apart and come together over how to continue to enact those ideals. And they are those of us who have given energy, toil, blood and tears to provide for America’s security. Many have done so, some more briefly than others, whose lives were given too soon.
Memorial Day reminds us of all this—that what is good is not natural, automatic or self-sustaining in a world that is amoral and disinterested in our survival, let alone our success. Many have stepped up to do their bit, and some their all, to ensure that our nation’s good (and so each of ours) can survive, and may thrive.
Memorial Day reminds us what it takes to live in this world. May we always remember that.
— DRGO Editor Robert B. Young, MD is a psychiatrist practicing in Pittsford, NY, an associate clinical professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.