The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the United States has fought in the last 14 years have not been popular. The consensus that initially backed U.S. intervention in the region quickly evaporated and became a victim of partisanship once it became clear the fighting there is part of a generations-long conflict that can’t be easily won.
Nor, it must be conceded, is it certain that the sacrifices made by American forces in those countries will have made a lasting impact on the region or the struggle against Islamist terror if the current administration’s desire to retreat at all costs eventually leads to a revival of the fortunes of freedom’s foes. But if there is one point on which all Americans can and should unite it is in praise and support of the brave Americans who serve our nation at the risk of their own lives.
It is out of the tragedy of these recent wars that at least some Americans have regained a sense of the importance of Memorial Day. While for many Americans, the date is merely a long weekend or the first harbinger of summer vacations, for all too many it is a day to remember loved ones and friends who have made the ultimate sacrifice for America.
Memorial Day grew out of the effort to memorialize the hundreds of thousands who died in the slaughter of the Civil War. But it is now a day on which we can recall the heroism of many generations of Americans who helped build a nation based on the concept of liberty and then were forced to fight to preserve its freedom. On such days, as we mourn the fallen and observe with sadness the toll that war has taken on the wounded who survived the battlefield, it is difficult to contemplate the causes of these wars or to imagine the circumstances under which new sacrifices might be compelled of Americans. But the point of these memorials is not merely to mourn but to celebrate the ideals that the efforts of American forces down through the ages have done so much to preserve.
Honoring our veterans requires us to do more than salute the flag on Memorial Day. Our government is obligated to keep its promises to those who served by providing them with the care they need. That is a pledge that unfortunately seems to have been observed in the breach by the Veterans Administration in recent years as the scandal about practices in its hospitals that cost the lives of at least 40 veterans showed. On this, of all days, it is imperative that the president should finally show some leadership and quickly act to redress these wrongs.
But the point about Memorial Day is not just the need to treat those who served with the respect they have earned. Rather, we must also, as Abraham Lincoln said when memorializing the casualties of the Civil War, rededicate ourselves to the ideals that our soldiers defended. In this age, as in previous struggles to preserve this nation and the democratic principles upon which it is based, it is imperative that we not let the flag of freedom drop even as we mourn our losses. Much as we may be tempted to withdraw from the affairs of the world and pretend that we can survive in a fortress America, that is neither possible nor prudent. Unfortunately, the battle to preserve freedom is not yet over and will require the constant vigilance of this and future generations.
On such a day, it is well worth re-reading the words of Lincoln in his Second Inaugural as he exhorted his nation to finish the conflict in which it was engaged rather than to abandon the struggle and to honor those who fought in it:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.