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In Remembrance of Honor and Obligation

May 26, 2013

Memorial Day. For most of us, this is a long weekend heralding summer and the outdoor activities and tasks associated with warm weather. It is a national holiday, with virtually all governmental offices, and a fair amount of retail businesses, closed for the day.

Most of us will fire up the grill, burn some burgers, crank up the tunes, throw back a few brews, maybe splash in the pool if the weather cooperates, or play a little softball. A few will forego all those leisurely moments to attend to the true purpose of the institution – remembering the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, and decorating the graves of all who have gone before, soldier or not.

In this Sunday’s Parade magazine, Joe Kita interviewed Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust (author of This Republic of Suffering) GeoRClarkMemplaza_Sm_26May2013) in an article titled “War and Remembrance.” The article reminds us of the enormity of the Civil War: the revised estimate of individual loss of life during that conflagration now stands at 750,000 – three-quarters of a million Americans who fought and were killed on their home soil. According to President Faust, approximately half of those killed were never identified and never returned to their families or hometowns. Their deaths “without dignity” (due to the unparalleled carnage of the battles) appalled those left behind. Decoration Day seems to have arisen spontaneously and simultaneously at a number of locations, to “. . . restore the dignity of those lives, underscore the contributions that had been made, and in some way ratify how important the courage and sacrifice had been.”

With our nation – actually the entire world, in such a state of turmoil, of flux, we can ill afford not to remember how it came to pass that we have the freedom and flexibility that we do, that we daily take for granted. People died on our behalf. They didn’t die only for themselves or their immediate families. They died knowing that their sacrifices paid for the rights of future generations to keep their freedom and flexibility. The cost was unimaginably high to us who are alive today, to us who think nothing of how this country – of how this life might have been otherwise. And this is how we repay that incomprehensible sacrifice, by taking a 3-day vacation and not even taking a moment of silence to honor the dead whose effort Abraham Lincoln described as having hallowed the very ground they stood on beyond anything the rest of us could ever give in return.

Mr. Faust puts our obligation very neatly:

“…the present is a product of the past, and the extraordinary actions that individuals have taken on our behalf . . . it behooves us to try to carry on their commitment, their belief in this nation . . . to dedicate ourselves to the propositions that were at the heart of what those men did and died for . . . ”


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