It’s Memorial Day, not Sacrifice Day
For immediate release per holiday publication schedules (698 words).
“And that is why we are laying a new foundation for our economy so that when our troops return home and take off the uniform, they can find a good job, provide for their families, and earn a college degree. These are some of the ways we can, must, and will honor the service of our troops and the sacrifice of their families.” — Barack Obama, Memorial Day 2009
As both a veteran and the son of a veteran, I have come to dread Memorial Day. I recoil at the postured talk about “sacrifice” for our country. Whatever the good intention, it’s the wrong word; It makes me feel like a sap.
It is a primitive a concept, bringing to mind the sacrifices that ensured plentiful harvests, a successful hunt and so forth — all to the benefit of those who managed not to be sacrificed, of course. And it suggests finality — over and done, move on, even forget.
n. An act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure. — first definition, Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current American Usage, 2009
There is a particular implication for my generation, drafted by lot into jungle combat. It has even more meaning for my father’s generation, piled up as cord wood on distant beachheads long ago abandoned as footnotes in diplomatic paperwork.
As young men yanked from home and friends, some of us felt a momentary sense of sacrifice (OK, it was self-pity). But not too far into our tours it waned. No, that’s not right, it was eclipsed — by the self-confidence, self-worth and reverence for liberty that somehow come with honor and duty.
Those are the right words, honor and duty, describing the men and women who did their duty, who proved an honor first of all to their fellow soldiers, then to their families and hometowns (not to the elites in that amalgam of power and privilege that has become Washington). And I have learned that such obligation, such heroism, has no finite moment; it must be renewed each day for a lifetime.
To give this distinction more weight, try an experiment: A Google search of the keywords “Afghanistan,” first with “sacrifice” and then with “honor and duty.” The former results in 3.5 million hits, the latter less than 10 thousand.
So this Memorial Day we will talk a lot about sacrifice and only a little about honor and duty. Here is a theory about that: We don’t mention honor and duty because the words drag us into reality — kicking and screaming, for we hate being reminded that our obligation is not buried with our fallen soldiers. We have a continuing duty as citizens, albeit middle-aged and unfit, to elect democratic representatives who will honor their office. We have a duty to throw out those who don’t, even when their dishonor awards us preference and privilege.
As fathers and mothers we have a duty to care for our children above all, to honor our own parents. We have a duty to protect the innocent. We (and not bureaucratic proxies) have a duty to feed and care for the poor, the ill and the aged. It is our duty, not their right — an important point if we are to remain free in a Constitutional Republic.
And as office-holders we must honor the rule of law rather than of personality, to honor our state and national constitutions and their histories, including the always politically testy sections on private property, the bearing of arms, states’ rights, sanctity of contract and individual freedom. We have a duty to defend our nation from enemies within and without.
We have a duty to . . . Yes, the list goes on and on. None are postures, please know, but principles — now unfashionable, perhaps, but ones for which so many volunteered to fight and for which so many died.
Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review. He served with the United States Navy at Shore Detachment Chu Lai, the Republic of Vietnam. His father, Tom Ladwig, served as a Naval aviator in the Pacific during World War II.
Editors: A version of this article was distributed Nov. 4, 2009.