I can’t think of a country that doesn’t have something like Memorial Day. Whether democratic or totalitarian or anything in between, national honors are paid annually to those who have given their lives for their countries.
Some parade their military hardware. Others fire rifles into the air. Wreaths of flowers, the playing of bugles, descriptive and moving speeches, all are hallmarks of a nation’s pause to reflect and remember.
If you live in, say North Korea, you’re likely to be required to attend one of these; in the coercive language they use it’s probably phrased that Your Government is Encouraged to Know that You’ll Be Joining Us.
In America you have your choice to do whatever you want, including nothing resembling a tribute, for the definition of freedom is to exercise your right to ignore that your right of choice was defended by those who died in battle.
I’m not here to guilt anyone into giving up their hot dogs, fishing rods or TV remote controls on Monday. But I do want to tell you why it’s important for any American, for every American, to reserve some time — whether it’s a day, an hour, or a few minutes — to reflect soberly on the fact that all we have was defended by what Abraham Lincoln once referred to as the ultimate sacrifice upon the “altar of freedom.”
Over the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it has become nearly impossible for any of us to not know someone in our nation’s military service who has not gone to Iraq or Afghanistan, and in many cases, several times.
Readers of this column know that I teach a journalism course at Arizona State University. In April one of my students asked my permission to bring a friend to visit the next session of our class. He was in town from her home state. He is very well-behaved, she said, with I’m sure a bit of mirth.
Within several days, she said, he was going to Afghanistan.
I said I’d be honored.
I greeted them before class. We talked a bit and I invited him to join in the discussion. He didn’t, quietly observing our talking about the First Amendment.
I had thought about introducing this young man with a firm handshake to everyone and about thanking him for his service. He certainly deserves that. But something told me to just treat him like any other visitor, to allow him a typical everyday experience, the kind he might fondly think about during his tour of duty.
And for those 75 minutes, at least, I hope that’s what he had. When you meet someone on their way to war, you can’t help but think about such things and more.
We have the freedom to disagree on the necessity of our nation’s involvement in a given armed conflict. President Barack Obama indicated last week that the war on terror as we knew it in 2001 was coming to an end, giving way to different approaches to defend our nation. Some agree with that and some don’t.
I’d like to think that, despite appearances sometimes, that Americans as a people actually learn some things. One, from the end of the Vietnam War, is that we will never again hold those who fight responsible for the decision to send them to do it.
On Monday I’m going to think about all those who went to war and didn’t return, whose graves are carefully tended to and decorated in late May each year. And I’m going to also think about those who are at war right now, and those who are on their way, some for the first time, some, not.
Go ahead and buy that car, that sofa, that mattress, this weekend.
But as you turn the key to head to your destination, as you lean back and enjoy the game, as you drift off to sleep, all those things that make up life in America are being protected by those who, exercising their own freedom of choice, volunteered to do it.
In North Korea, if they volunteer for military service – if you can even call it volunteering — it’s probably to avoid unpleasant consequences for one’s family.
In this country, the motivations are higher than that.
Our veterans know they defend that greatest and freest nation in the history of the world, our system of government, and so on. But in the foreign lands in which they serve, in times of danger, they are thinking most about those dearest to them: their families and friends.
That’s us. And the least we can do on Monday is give them a few minutes of quiet reflection and the hope and prayer that those alive will come home safely and that those who did not will rest in peace.
Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Watch his video commentaries at eastvalleytribune.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.