Memorial Day Lessons from Abraham Lincoln

Memorial Day weekend is over. Memorial Day itself is a day to remember those who died while serving in the US Armed Forces, according to the VA. I don’t know anyone who died while serving. I feel both fortunate and a bit uncomfortable with that at the same time and for the same reason: I had the opportunity to go to a university, where I could goof off/play, figure out life-stuff, meet people from different places and backgrounds, learn how to learn and start to learn about the details about nature, music, football, jazz, webpages, chemical reactions, and animal behavior, and grow up with nothing more traumatic than being in socially awkward situations with a bunch of people who also had the luxury of not having to grow up in the military. I didn’t have to live in a war zone. Nobody gave me orders to occupy foreign land, or to search someone’s house, or attack anyone, or fire missiles at anyone or anything that contains another person, or do any of the other things that are totally normal only in war. No one has assaulted me. No one has really tried to kill me. I’ve never been shot at, or targeted with bombs or shells. Due to circumstances, I had the opportunity to go to college rather than opt into of all of that, and I did. Others, who enlisted either because it was their best option, or maybe their only option, to be able to go to college (93% do not hold a bachelor’s degree according to the Department of Defense), were fine until 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. Those who enlisted went to war for those of us who could afford to opt out. Many of them pay the price every day we remain at war, absorbing trauma after trauma. Some die by the hands of others. Some die by their own hands. There are no words I can say to close that gap. Abraham Lincoln expresses the sentiment in the Gettysburg Address:

“We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”


The sun was directly overhead and the air viscous at the 500 Festival Memorial Service. A giant flag fluttered in slow motion over the street suspended between two fully extended fire truck ladders in front of the War Memorial. It fluttered in slow motion against the blue sky. Riflemen in sharp, black dress uniforms stood at attention on the high balcony of the Memorial. The band played. The chorus sang. Speeches were made by politicians, chairpersons, and generals. Pearl Harbor survivors were recognized to remind us of a time when our Pacific naval fleet was taken by surprise. “Never Forget.” The USS Indianapolis, which was sunk in shark-infested waters after delivering parts and enriched uranium for “Little Boy” was honored and applauded. “Never Forget.” Just hours before, on the other side of the world, President Obama visited the site where that same Little Boy fell from the sky, annihilating the city of Hiroshima and the people who were living there. He spoke healing words and unifying words and comforted the survivors. Hiroshima was forgotten at the service. Neither the governor nor generals spoke of the mission of the USS Indianapolis, the consequences of war to human beings in the war zone, how we can make peace in the world, or any of the same topics that President Obama spoke of. Their words implied that war is something that happens to us and that we should continue to feel anger, justified by the wounds we have suffered. They are not healing words. Perhaps those were the only words they could think of to comfort the families of those who died. Many of those “Gold Star Families” were in attendance. I hope that they find peace.

What Mr. Lincoln says next is where we really need to pay attention.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The American experiment must continue. We must continue to work to expand freedoms. Imagine a world where, instead of reopening old wounds, we heal them, and heal each other. Imagine a world where there is no concept of “them”, where we are just people. Imagine a world where we free ourselves from the fear of loss and have the courage to justify making peace rather than justifying going to war. You don’t have to wait for this world. You can do more than hope that it happens on its own. You have the power to create peace. Honor the fallen by living life in this way and voting for people who are wise.

I sat next to a buddy of mine from work at the memorial service. He is a West Point alum who served over five years in the Iraq War. At the end of the ceremony, we walked together to place carnations at the base of wreaths that represent the fallen. I asked him what he thought about the ceremony. “Most people just don’t understand. People need to understand.” He paused, fighting back tears. “This brings back a lot of tough memories… guys who went to Iraq and Afghanistan…” I patted him on the shoulder. We walked together to the wreath and laid down our carnations.

Photo Credit: US Army

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