If you wish, you can easily read or hear today about how your barbecue or pickleball tournament or screen-streamed couch coma is a distraction from—maybe even a dishonoring of—the real object of the Memorial Day holiday.
A quick trot through the news and social media would surely yield many Americans of good intent looking down their noses at frivolities on this somber occasion. The message may be that you should forgo your pleasures entirely on Memorial Day, or maybe just that you should hang a figurative funeral crepe over the occasion for the more than 1.3 million Americans who have died in wars since the Revolution.
They will tell you, Strunk and White have mercy upon them, to “let that sink in” while you are guzzling your White Claws or swacking your pickleballs.
I know this is true, because as a young writer I found these pieces very attractive. It’s sort of a reverse carpe diem: Release the day to the honor and remembrance of the fallen. This is a cousin to the billboard you will see this December reminding you that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
And indeed, these are right and proper reminders that debauchery in celebration is at odds with the sacredness of the occasion. But such ideas can easily give way to scolding. Why are you out looking for a deal on a new Kia Sorento when the graves of the fallen go unadorned? Financing may be free, but freedom isn’t.
We are blessed that there will be many Americans today who lay laurels on headstones, and that the brothers in arms and families of those killed in their duties will be comforted by those who love them—those for whom the sacrifice may not have been entire, but who will spend all of their days enduring it. And we always do need more Americans for this important work. If you are moved and able to spend today consoling, honoring, or remembering, you do so with my profound thanks. A nation that does not mourn and remember the ones who laid down their lives for it is not worthy of their sacrifices.
Yes, a nation that does not honor its war dead will indeed find it harder to ask new generations to risk a similar sacrifice. But so will a nation that does not reach for things worth dying for.
Young people do not willingly face death for the sake of a good funeral, but they may do so to protect the people they love or a high ideal they hold dear. I cannot make the sacrifices of the past worthwhile by my remembrances, but I can, in my living years, try to be worthy of them. I can do my small part to make a nation that is a rightful object of love and of purposes that deserve defending.
“If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter,” wrote Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry in his now-famous letter to his wife, Sarah, on July 14, 1861, just before the First Battle of Bull Run, where he did indeed lay down his life.
Felled by a Confederate cannonball on July 21, Ballou had his left leg amputated and could not be moved when Union forces broke and retreated back to Washington. He remained there by Sudley Church under the care of Army surgeons until they were captured by the Confederates. He died a week later, buried in a rough grave next to his colonel, John Slocum.
Ballou had never mailed his ominous letter to Sarah. He kept it in his trunk even as he sent off other, far more optimistic notes to his beloved wife in the following week. But Ballou did want to be remembered for the sentiments he wrote down, knowing they would be found if he did die, “lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.”
“I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution,” he wrote. “And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.”
What was the product of the Revolution that amounted to a debt that had to be repaid? What was the “American Civilization” Ballou was fighting for?
A free people living as they wished, like his Huguenot ancestors who found refuge here.
A country of unlimited opportunity, like the one that gave him the chance to become a successful lawyer and speaker of his state’s house of representatives by the age of 28.
A nation of promise, like the one in which his young sons, William and Edgar, could grow into men of character and achievement.
Ballou wanted that civilization not only preserved as it was, but enlarged to include the people held captive by corrupt laws and the same men who sought to tear down what had been bought by the “blood and suffering of the Revolution.”
Whether today you are somber or merry, busy or idle matters far less than whether you are living a life that helps build and maintain an American civilization that someone would face death to preserve. That surely includes a country that celebrates the start of summer with frivolity or well-deserved rest; a people who gather with the ones they love on a holiday to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Or, like many of us, working away in our chosen vocations.
We all owe Ballou and the others who willingly died to defend American civilization something, just as he owed the heroes of the Revolution. Some will be called one day to make the same terrible payment he did. But all of us are obliged to work to be a free people living in a land of opportunity with a promising future; a nation that merits the sacrifices of the past and worthy of the next generation of its defenders.
Your greatest tribute to them is a good life well-lived.
“Your days are numbered,” wrote Marcus Aurelius. “Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.”