Memorial Day has always been a special time in my life. For a lot of reasons, some of which I’ll admit really don’t have much at all to do with the meaning of the holiday. As a child, that day meant the end of school was near. Hang on just a little while longer, that day told me, because it’s almost over. Thinking like that got me through school. And in a somewhat convoluted and beautiful sort of way, after all those years I find myself working at a college and thinking much the same way.
But of course I understand much more now than I did at eighteen. About life, yes, but also about things like Memorial Day. About what it symbolizes. There are holidays that are the domain of the religious among us, no matter how deep secular society tries to sink their teeth into them. Christmas isn’t about Santa, Easter isn’t about a rabbit, and Thanksgiving isn’t about turkey. There’s something about those days that whispers to us that we should spend some time looking inside ourselves rather than around.
Memorial Day is unique in that it is a secular holiday with almost religious connotations. It’s a day to commemorate values like honor and sacrifice, virtues that for many now seem archaic. It is a day to say thank you to those who willingly put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedom. Who whisper to us in the darkness that we may lie down and rest, because they stand guard in the breach. I can think of few things more worthy of pausing in the grind of our daily lives.
Nowadays the military is a revered institution, trusted more than our government, our judges, and our financial giants. I believe that’s a good thing. It hasn’t always been that way. There was a time in our history when our soldiers were punished in the court of social opinion for the deeds of our leaders, and in a time when it seems as though we’ve screwed so much up, it’s nice to know we’ve at least righted that. We can vent our rage and frustration with the policymakers all we want, we can call wars illegal or unjustified, but we will support our troops.
That’s what Memorial Day is about.
As I pause today to remember the fallen and the ultimate sacrifice they gave, my thoughts turn to the fallen of other countries as well, whether allies or enemies.
The history of mankind is a dichotomy marked by seemingly impossible advances and abhorrent violence. Our hands have tilled the earth for food to sustain us, and those hands have also soaked that very earth in blood. The depths to which the human spirit can rise are matched only by the depths to which it can descend. We are at once noble and ignoble, at times good and other times evil, and all together broken.
You can tell me otherwise, but I’ll never believe it.
I will honor our brave men and women today. I will think of them, I will thank them, I will pray for them. But I will also fight the urge that sits deep within me to glorify the wars they fight and the blood they spill, however necessary and right and defensible it may be. Because in the end our soldiers protect more than my freedom and my safety, they also protect a truth that burdens them so it will never have to burden any of us, one that has been found on the battlefields of Europe, the jungles of Vietnam, the streets of Baghdad, and the mountains of Afghanistan—a man doesn’t have to die to go to hell. They’ve been there.