On this Memorial Day weekend, let’s take a few minutes to remember the fundamental values that are the reasons why millions of American men and women sacrificed so much in military service for our nation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness… ” (Declaration of Independence, 1776)
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and their colleagues gathered in Philadelphia on that first 4th of July might were surely men of their historic moment — white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males whose frames of reference were largely constrained by the cultural mores of the 18th Century colonies — and, yet, they articulated a social and political philosophy that transcended their times to inspire the human quest for freedom, equality and justice across the ages. Their potent words laid the foundation for American soldiers to lay down their lives for freedom from Valley Forge to Gettysburg to Flanders Field to Omaha Beach to Iwo Jima to Khe Sanh to Baghdad and Kabul.
The soldiers and sailors and Marines and Air Force crews who fought for this nation were White and Black and Hispanic and Asian and Irish and Italian and German and Swiss and Polish and Russian and Indian and Korean and Japanese and Chicano and Latino and Baptist and Catholic and Muslim and Lutheran and aetheist and clever and dumb and smart and neat and messy and married and single and (yes) gay and straight and often afraid, but mostly all very brave.
Their parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors all came from other places to the United States because of the American Dream, that powerful impulse for a better life, the desire to achieve levels of economic security and personal freedom unmatched in any place on the face of the earth.
“…from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that couse 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 the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1865)
They did not die for small, narrow-minded causes of petty communities. They died for the greatest possible causes of humanity, the causes of freedom, justice and equality.
The Civil War has been over for 145 years, and yet, in too many places around this country, the battles rage on over who has a right to be here, who is superior or inferior, what government may require of citizens, what citizens have a right to expect of government. The Civil War was not just about ending slavery, though that was the moral driver of the war. But the Civil War was also about what kind of polity this nation would be in the future, whether a disaggregated collection of largely independent states or a truly united nation of many states.
We might have thought that all of these questions were settled a long time ago. But the desire to subjugate other human beings raises its ugly head too often in parts of our nation. The belief in some quarters that states may act independently of our national values, principles and laws reveals our ongoing struggle to honor the sacrifices of Gettysburg and other battlegrounds of our past that made our future possible.
“…when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and eveyr city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestant and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing…Free at Last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!“ (Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial, I have a Dream, 1963)
Memorial Day 2010 comes at a time when our nation struggles anew with fundamental questions of the shape of the society we wish to become, of the rights of all human beings to participate in this society, of the role of governments both federal and state in protecting the interests of those who are citizens and those who are not. Human rights do not belong only to those with citizenship papers.
The sacrifices of twelve generations of Americans in military service have made it possible for this nation to flourish in “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in spite of our numerous internal conflicts and increasingly frequent economic and environmental catastrophes. We owe it to all of those who sacrificed so much to work harder to resolve our conflicts, refresh our commitment to our fundamental values, and work to restore this nation’s reputation as a place where the humblest person with big dreams can find a way to make them come true.
“My dream is of a place and time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.” (Abraham Lincoln)