Memorial Day is a unique holiday in that we honor the people whose blood formed and maintain the ground on which we walk and the government we have chosen to represent us. It is humbling to remember them by being at this Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in the aftermath of the Civil War as a time to decorate the graves of the Union dead with flowers. By the 20th century, competing Union and Confederate traditions merged and the day was extended to all Americans who died while in military service. It has survived in US Code as a proclamation to all people of the United States to unite in prayer for permanent peace, each according to his or her own faith.
Writing a speech for Memorial Day is a bit tricky. There are some very large boots to fill in that department and so much that could be said. Veterans Affairs reports that between 1775 and 1991 America saw 11 periods of war, a total of almost 42 million service members, approximately one million in theater deaths, and an additional 230 thousand non theater deaths. We have been in the current Global War on Terror since 2001, our longest conflict yet. There is a tremendous amount of sacrifice packed into those numbers.
As I tossed around the many different tracks I could take, I kept coming back to two main concepts.
The first is that while somber, today is also a day to be celebrated. General Patton once said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God such men lived.” More so than many, we can recognize this as we stand in front of this particular tomb. The men who fought in the American War for Independence sacrificed everything to fight against a physically absent and thoroughly oppressive king. They resolutely left their homes, families, and livelihoods behind to fight for an experimental government. A government for the people, by the people.
On this very day in 1775 John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail from Philadelphia stating “The military Spirit which runs through the Continent is truly amazing. This City turns out 2000 Men every day. Mr. Dickinson is a Colonel. — Mr. Reed a Lieutenant Colonel. — Mr. Mifflin a Major. He ought to have been a General for he has been the animating soul of the whole.” He concluded with the following words. “Oh that I was a Soldier! — I will be. — I am reading military Books. — Every body must, and will, and shall be a soldier.”
This fighting spirit of even the upper echelons of contemporary 18th century society is what we can celebrate today. They were fighting not for individual glory but for a vision that many of them would never realize. They were dying for this country that we hold so beloved. Today is not a day of mourning but a day of gratitude.
The second idea that kept nagging at me is that a hero isn’t defined by one great act. We rightly consider the men and women who gave their lives for our country as heroes. We appropriately reward them with posthumous awards and stirring speeches. But in the pomp and circumstance we quickly forget that they were normal men and women. And like us, they were a sum of their choices. Every choice they were presented, every decision they made, and every sacrifice no matter how small steeled their resolve and gave them strength to do what they must. Their death doesn’t define their legacy but serves to illustrate the conviction and courage by which they lived.
To those of you who wear a uniform, don’t for a moment forget who you represent. You have the privilege to portray men of great fortitude and to share their story with others. Do them justice. For what you wear is not a costume but a uniform. The uniform of a country which many men have died to protect.
In her 5 July 1775 response to John, Abigail Adams said “I would not have you be distressed about me. Danger they say makes people valiant. Hitherto I have been distressed, but not dismayed. I have felt for my Country and her Sons, I have bled with them, and for them.
Today we remember our country’s sons and daughters who sacrificed everything. Now may our lives reflect that memory.
Speech given by Ms. Laura Marceau at the Memorial Day Ceremony, Old Presbyterian Meeting House, Alexandria VA. 29 May 2017.