arlington national cememtery memorial day
Arlington National Cemetery (Photo credit Jenny Leonard/USA TODAY)

This is the second Memorial Day post that I have written for A Patchwork of Perceptions. My 2018 post, “Remember the Fallen” , focused on the historical origins of Memorial Day. For 2019, rather than the past, I want to consider the present – the standards to which the modern American should hold himself in the nation that is the legacy of the fallen.

In 1955, evangelist Billy Graham delivered a memorial address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars after a European trip to various U.S. installations. In that address, he spoke these striking words:

“As I stood in the hospital quarter of the Danish ship “Jutlandia” in Korean waters by an American boy scarcely 20 years of age and watched helplessly as this young life ebbed away, I thought: What right have thousands of pleasure-seeking Americans to go on living when this lad in the early flower of youth has to die? And in that moment, the fact dawned on me that if he had to die for America, some of us must live for America. Sometimes it is far more difficult to live than it is to die. They have handed us a torch, and we have a responsibility to see that they have not died in vain.”

Graham’s statement echoes the thought of Abraham Lincoln, who in the Gettysburg Address challenged Americans to dedicate themselves to the task that the honored dead had left them: 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.”

soldiers carrying remains of Sergeant Wright
Soldiers bearing the remains of Sergeant Wright (Photo credit Aaron J. Jenne/U.S. Air Force)

Soldiers past and present have sacrificed much in order that others might gain or keep more. In the devotion to their country, they accept the possibility of not returning to its soil. As Christ put it, “Greater love has none than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13).

They fell for principles they believed worth defending – the unalienable rights of which Thomas Jefferson wrote and the natural law that formed the foundation of the Constitution. They fell that the United States of America might stay united. They fell, and left the standing the responsibility of those principles and that unity.

How have we done?

According to a poll of 900 voters by NBC News and Wall Street Journal from October 2018, 80% of registered American voters believed that the United States was very divided. When asked the reasons for this belief, the respondents gave political answers, Republicans blaming Democrats, Barack Obama, godlessness, and the media, and Democrats blaming Donald Trump and Republicans.

Democrat Republican
Image from Shutterstock

The division touches more than just politics. In their series on the division in America, the Associated Press observed, “It’s no longer just Republican vs. Democrat, or liberal vs. conservative. It’s the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent, rural vs. urban, white men against the world. Climate doubters clash with believers. Bathrooms have become battlefields, borders are battle lines.”

In 2018, TIME contributor Frank Luntz conducted focus groups between Republicans and Democrats in which he found that Americans don’t agree on the meanings of the values that soldiers have defended. Even the American treasure of “freedom” does not avoid ambiguity, as one side upholds freedom to and the other, freedom from. Surely this means we of the modern age have failed in our responsibility!

Perspective, here, is key. We people of the present tend to romanticize the past, forgetting that the first two decades of the 21st century are not some anomaly in American history. Political and social divisions began as early as the founding of the nation; consider the feud between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. In the 19th century Americans witnessed the gradual breakdown of relations between North and South, and in the 1860s they launched into a full-blown civil war. Remember, too, the racial tensions and civil rights movements of the mid-20th century.

Cartoon credit David Horsey/Seattle Times

According to journalist Colin Woodard in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, America has never been united, in the sense that at no point have all regions agreed on fundamental issues.

Does that, then, mean that America has never succeeded at “that cause for which [the fallen] gave the last full measure of devotion”? Have Americans failed to “live for America”, scorning those who died for it? Not exactly. It does, however, mean that we haven’t done enough. The flag still waves, but the men and women whom we honor on Memorial Day did not die so the nation would merely survive.

We owe it to them to make an America not only founded on the principles they defended, but fully embodying them.

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” – Nathan Hale (1755-1776)

Read the entirety of Billy Graham’s address at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Joseph Ellis provides an excellent analysis of the Hamilton-Burr feud in the the first chapter of Founding Brothers. Read a summary here.