To Our Country and Our Dead
On Memorial Day, let us remain resolved that these dead shall not have died in vain.
The following is adapted from remarks delivered at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2023, as part of its Memorial Day Remembrance Ceremony.
In contemporary American culture, Memorial Day conjures images of long weekends and backyard barbecues as often as it does flag-draped coffins and twenty-one gun salutes. In a way, this points to a strange tension between the celebratory and the solemn that co-exists in the holiday.
But in a larger sense, this is as it should be.
Memorial Day was created in the aftermath of our Civil War, in an effort to salve the devastation that the war carnage brought upon our republic and to serve as means to bring our wounded country together once again by sharing in remembrance of those who gave their lives in that war.
Today Memorial Day encompasses the remembrance not only of those who died in the Civil War, but all those who gave their lives in service to our country.
While solemn remembrance is appropriate for such a momentous occasion, celebration is warranted as well. After all, it is these sacrifices that have secured the peace that is a prerequisite for the leisurely association of families and friends, to say nothing of higher pursuits.
Without citizens and statesmen prepared to dedicate their lives to—and even sacrifice their lives for—the common good, the things that make life worth living become nearly impossible to obtain.
As John Adams wrote to his wife Abagail:
I must study Politics and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Music, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelain.
As Adams suggests, war and statesmanship underpin the possibility of these higher cultural pursuits by securing peace in a world full of fallen human beings.
St. Augustine directs our vision even higher—to God.
In a letter to a Christian Roman general named Boniface, St. Augustine addresses Boniface’s desire to leave the army and become a monk. But St. Augustine discourages that course of action, counseling him to instead offer his military service to God and to think of himself as serving the cause of peace.
Think, then, of this first of all, when you are arming for the battle, that even your bodily strength is a gift of God; for, considering this, you will not employ the gift of God against God... Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace; for our Lord says: Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.
As we honor those who preserve peace through military service, so we honor the memory of those who gave their lives in service to securing peace. We do so, not only because it is right and just in itself, but also, as the origins of Memorial Day attest, because it serves to bind together our country.
In her seminal work The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt defines the polis as “a kind of organized remembrance.” That is to say, one way of understanding a city or political community is as a community of people who share memories in an organized and public way.
Part of this shared remembrance is the commemoration of all those from the community who have gone before. As those who have passed on become not just “the dead” but “our dead,” the political community comes to share a public memory and a unified understanding of itself. This is the reason that graveyards have historically had a prominent place within the civic space, along with the churches to which they have been historically attached.
If this transition to having a sense of “our dead” is a crucial aspect of binding together a community, then the remembrance of those who have died in service to our community is even more momentous for that purpose.
It is not surprising, then, that some of the greatest speeches in the Western tradition were written to memorialize those who have given their lives for their country.
Certainly Pericles’ funeral oration, from Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, ranks first among these. But, aside from Pericles—and, as Americans, closer to home both temporally and geographically—there are few odes to war dead more beloved and more poignant than Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Among the numerous profundities of that short speech, Lincoln asserts that it is of the upmost importance that those of us who remain be committed to ensuring that the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in service to our country not be rendered meaningless.
As he puts it: “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain” and that their sacrifice should instill in us, the living, an “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure.”
He concludes by specifying the cause for which their sacrifice should increase our devotion: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
There is perhaps no greater tribute that can be paid to those who have given their lives in service to our country than to resolve that their sacrifice shall not have been in vain.
We find ourselves in a moment of cultural, political, social, and theological crisis. Many question the decency, the justness—and even the basic legitimacy—of our country.
Some have despaired of its future given the divisions and corruptions that are becoming more apparent by the day.
But as St. Thomas More admonishes us in his masterwork Utopia, we must not abandon the ship in the storm because we cannot control the winds. Though we cannot hope in this fallen world to turn all things to good and just, we must engage in the arduous task of making things a little bad as we can by serving our neighbors, and our country.
In this sense, it is altogether fitting and proper that we who are engaged in the work of preserving our American and Western cultural heritage should remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.
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It is incumbent upon us to commit ourselves to study, to service, and to mitigating evil so that our country might be preserved and that their sacrifice might not be in vain.
And, let us enjoy the peace purchased by those whom we honor on Memorial Day by joining together with family and friends to celebrate.
So, let us raise our glasses and toast: To our country and our dead.