Memorial Day 2014
Memorial Day 2014
For many of our fellow citizens, Memorial Day marks the commencement of the summer holidays. For those who gather today at events like this, it has far deeper meaning. It is the day we set aside to honor those who gave their lives in defense of – what exactly?
What exactly did they die defending?
We always say “they died defending our country.” And indeed they did. But we need to remind ourselves that the blood they spilled and the lives they sacrificed was for an oath NOT to preserve, protect and defend the United States of America or the United States Government. It was to preserve, protect and defend the CONSTITUTION of the UNITED STATES.
That’s the only oath they took, and they died for that oath. They died defending not our country, but our constitution – that is the only thing they pledged to defend. And Preserve. And Protect. It is the same pledge required of every person in our government and every immigrant who becomes a citizen.
The people of OTHER countries pledge their loyalty to their sovereign, or their country or their government. In America, the people are sovereign and we pledge our loyalty to the Constitution.
There’s a reason for that. It is because if we ever lose our Constitution, we will have already lost our country and already forfeit that government which Lincoln described as “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
1,321,612 Americans have died to protect that Constitution. Another 1,531,036 came home crippled and scarred.
What do we say to these patriots? What do we say to their families?
Well, yes, that’s why each of us is here. That’s why we set this day aside.
But as Lincoln reminded us at Gettysburg, words alone aren’t enough.
James Garfield gave the first Memorial Day speech at Arlington in 1868.
“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here, beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung…They summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens.”
Words aren’t enough. If we are to repay our debt to these young Americans who sacrificed EVERYTHING they had and loved and hoped in this life, then we must act.
Your presence here is such an act. It is an act of devotion and an act of gratitude. The honored dead take no notice of our presence. But the shattered families they left behind take great notice.
Among us are Gold Star Families. Every day they bear the full weight of the sacrifice their loved ones made.
Your presence here tells them, as Lincoln said in his famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, that “so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom” is recognized and highly valued by their fellow citizens – and will be through all time.
Among us are Blue Star Families, who live in constant anxiety as their loved ones are in harm’s way. Your presence here tells them that their country stands behind them and that their friends and neighbors join in longing for the day of their safe return.
Do not underestimate what a profound statement you are making to these families and to their sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and wives and husbands simply by being here today.
But there’s more. Once again, Lincoln said it best in his second inaugural: we owe it to these honored dead to “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
I’m not going to stray into current events except to say that we all know that we are not measuring up to this supreme moral responsibility. And we all know that until we do so, not one of us can look these grieving families or these wounded veterans in the eye.
There is still one more act necessary to square the debt we owe to these honored dead, an act of simple citizenship without which me make a mockery of their sacrifice.
Long ago, Lincoln warned us that if “danger ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us – it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live forever or die by suicide.”
They died to preserve, protect and defend our Constitution from dangers abroad. That was their oath and they backed that oath with their lives.
Everyone here today is fully mindful of that fact or you wouldn’t be here. Being fully mindful of that sacrifice, is there anyone here who would tolerate or allow the violation of that same Constitution and all it means?
They defended our Constitution with their lives. They did so expecting that those for whom they died would defend that same Constitution here at home. We do so through the votes we cast – insisting that the actions of those we elect are true to that Constitution. We must ask ourselves, are we measuring up to this responsibility?
That’s the implied contract binding us to those we honor today. When our Constitution was threatened from abroad, these young people left the safety and security of hearth and home and never returned. They did so with the firm expectation that the Constitution would be defended with equal zeal – if not equal sacrifice – by their fellow citizens who stayed safely behind.
By tradition, the flag is hoisted to half-mast on Memorial Day to honor these fallen heroes and acknowledge what they did for us. At noon, the flag will be raised to full mast to signify the continuation of this Union under its Constitution. Each of us will go from this spot for barbecues and celebrations in which we will fully enjoy the blessings of liberty that OUR Constitution – and THEIR sacrifice for its preservation -- makes possible.
But as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause 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 government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”