My grandmother’s brother died in WW1, and my father fought in WW2 but came home safely to his family. He once told me about the death of one his buddies in the war and said, “We should never forget those guys.”
On Memorial Day, we make sure we don’t forget them.
The earliest traditions of Memorial Day rose from the ashes of the Civil War, as people chose a day to collectively process their grief. It’s incredible to consider that anywhere between 600,000 and 700,000 men died fighting in that struggle to preserve the union.
After World War I, the observance of Memorial Day grew to commemorate American service members who died in any war. From the Civil War to WW1 and WW2, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan and in military operations elsewhere as well, so many hundreds of thousands of Americans have died in the trenches of war. It’s appropriate that we set aside a Memorial Day, to remember and to allow ourselves to grieve their passing.
Memorial Day should not be a mindless holiday, it should be very mindful indeed. Let us grieve, and let us also imagine a world in which war shall be no more.
America’s greatest leaders during times of war were those who hated it the most. These words were spoken by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936:
I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen two hundred limping exhausted men come out of line-the survivors of a regiment of one thousand that went forward forty-eight hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.
He went on to say,
I have passed unnumbered hours, I shall pass unnumbered hours, thinking and planning how war may be kept from this Nation.
I wish I could keep war from all Nations; but that is beyond my power. I can at least make certain that no act of the United States helps to produce or to promote war. I can at least make clear that the conscience of America revolts against war and that any Nation which provokes war forfeits the sympathy of the people of the United States.
Within a few short years, of course, Roosevelt would be leading American soldiers – including his own sons – into our involvement in WW2. As much as he had seen the ravages of war, as much as he hated war, Roosevelt did what he had to do as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces and the leader of the most powerful nation on earth.
I have similarly admired President Dwight Eisenhower, who while he was Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces during WW2, also, at the end of his presidency, warned the world about what he called the “military-industrial-complex.” Both those presidents, like Lincoln before them, embodied on deeply human levels a combination of abject horror at the thought of war, and a sober realization of their duties to the country and the world.
I see in them my role models for how a president should view military involvement. I think of the military like I think of a surgeon. If America has to have surgery, then you bet we need to have the best; but a reasonable person avoids surgery if at all possible.
And that, to me, is the greatest honor we can show our fallen soldiers on this day. Again in the words of Roosevelt, we must do more than end wars; “we must end the beginnings of all wars.” We must remember these words of President John F. Kennedy: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind”
We, in our time, must learn to wage peace.
On this Memorial Day, in honor of Americans who have died fighting for our country, I pledge whatever life I have left to helping create a world in which people will die in war no more.