Remembering the thousands of Americans who gave their lives in defense of freedom.
President Reagan attending a Memorial Day ceremony honoring the Vietnam Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. 5/28/1984.(whitehouse.gov)
It’s America’s most solemn holiday, maybe its most significant, more significant even than the Fourth of July.
It embodies a solemnity, a sacredness that’s easy to lose track of in the midst of the picnics, the softball games, and the “white sales.” But it’s a sacredness that underpins the entire American experiment.
What we commemorate on Memorial Day is the ultimate sacrifice thousands of Americans made in defense of freedom. It is a sacrifice that is part and parcel of commitment to a way of life that embodies the very concept of dying for the sake of others, namely our military.
For that reason, Memorial Day is as much about the living as the dead. The living are those who have benefited from that sacrifice like me; and those who are pledged to offer their lives if and when necessary, namely our men and women in uniform.
Part of the problem of understanding the depth and meaning of that act of selflessness is simply comprehending the entire scale of the sacrifice, starting from our Civil War.
In that conflict, 364,511 deaths (a staggering 140,414 killed in action).
In World War I, 116,516 deaths.
In World War II, 405,399 deaths.
Stalemate in Korea came at the price of 36,574 dead, and defeat in Vietnam cost 58,209 dead. Iran and Afghanistan together have cost 6,800 lives, and counting. The death toll of the last two conflicts may be small in number, but they remain huge in terms of the memories of families and friends, comrades and companions, and in the lasting memory of our nation.
And all of those who died in all America’s wars ultimately died for the sake of preserving freedom. This was not the fate they wanted. Most if not all of those who died at Midway or in the Argonne Forest or at Gettysburg or in the streets of Hue and Fallujah never intended to give their lives away, certainly not without a fight. But volunteer or draftee, officer or buck private, the moment they took their oath of service they presented their lives willingly for that sacrifice — which is where far too many ended.
The sacral nature of this willing sacrifice needs to be understood and appreciated — even revered.
General Douglas MacArthur did. It was why he liked to compare the military life to a priesthood: that the sacrifice unto death entailed in America’s military services was one that ranked with the sacrifice of the Son of God Himself.
“It is my humble belief that the relation which He came to establish was based on sacrifice,” MacArthur once said, “and that men and women who follow in His train are called by it to the defense of certain priceless principles, even at the cost of their own lives.” He knew that this sacral sacrifice included the men who died at his side in World War I and the soldiers, sailors, and Marines he sent into harm’s way as supreme commander in both World War II and Korea.
It still includes the men and women who serve for us today in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who continue to make that offering to defend our democracy today even to the “last full measure.”
On this day of all days, we must think of the cemeteries dedicated to their collective sacrifice, both here at places like Arlington National Cemetery and abroad at locations like Normandy and Iwo Jima, not as graveyards but as sacred gardens of freedom, where the blood they spilled grows and sanctifies our American liberty — from that moment of ultimate sacrifice until now, and forever.
— Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and the author of the forthcoming Douglas MacArthur: American (Random House) He can be reached on Twitter @ArthurLHerman.