Lest We Forget

memorial day3

Note: After watching the several television programs devoted to commemorating Memorial Day this past weekend, I have come to the conclusion that many in the media confuse this day with Veterans Day, which is in November and recognizes the service of all United States veterans.

Memorial Day is, at its core, about lives never fully lived, marriages never made, children never born, and dreams never fulfilled. It is about the more than one million men and women who have died in defense of the United States since 1775, frozen forever in time at the moment of the sacrifice they made to preserve the basic freedoms and liberties that most Americans take for granted. Memorial Day is about the ones who did not come back, not about those who did and to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude. We express that appreciation on Veterans Day.

Veterans Day is the day set aside to thank and honor ALL those who served honorably in the military – in wartime or peacetime. In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank LIVING veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served – not only those who died – have sacrificed and done their duty.

In order to focus on what we celebrate on the last Monday of May each year, I offer the following Memorial Day tribute.

It was on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee that Rudyard Kipling wrote his renowned poem Recessional, part of which has the following lines:
God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe –
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Or lesser breeds without the law –
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

Kipling wrote those words when the British Empire was at it height and the greatest power on the face of the earth. Queen Victoria’s Jubilee was the obvious event for celebrating this achievement, yet Kipling chose not to do so. Instead, he wrote these words, vividly cautioning revelers of the arrogances of pride and the capriciousness of power and that prideful power is neither ultimately lasting, nor conclusively significant.

It would be a gross understatement to say that Queen Victoria was neither amused nor pleased with Kipling’s words, thinking them instead to be inappropriate and unsuitable for such a splendid occasion.

If not appropriate for a Queen’s jubilee, then surely the words are fitting for Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a day on which we remember never to forget. The question is: What do we remember? Possibly one of the most difficult tasks that we will have is to remember that it is Memorial Day. Many people still refer to this day as “Decoration Day,” the original name for Memorial Day, coined in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. Could this preference for the original name of the day be an outward expression of an almost subconscious feeling? It demonstrates our natural dislike for remembering some things. We much prefer to decorate and to forget.

In many of the newspaper picture sections throughout the country on this holiday, there will be published photographs of places that we have decorated and forgotten. There will be unbelievably large fields of white crosses, festive flowers and fluttering flags. Many people find it rather easy to look at such things without remembering too much. Rows and rows of white crosses do not do much but form a rather attractive geometric pattern against the green grass. For others like myself, however, it is rather difficult to forget what, or rather, who lay under those neat symmetrical white crosses. The memory is seared too deeply into heart and mind ever to be erased. But we should never see just row upon row of white crosses. There are men and women – dead men and women – beneath those neat symmetrical rows. It is only the rows that are neat and symmetrical, however. Most of those beneath those crosses died violent and horrible deaths, twisted and blasted into awkward, inelegant, graceless positions. Memorial Day is a day to remember those who died such horrendous deaths. To not remember them is to default on a sacred trust – the most sacred trust that one person can place upon another – one’s life.

So how will we celebrate? How will we remember? Unfortunately, the simple fact is that most of us will not. For most of us, Memorial Day is just a holiday, just a day of recreation. It is just another of the paid holidays that the union contract calls for each year. It is a day of commercial ventures and an opportunity for merchants to stay open and to reap the profits from a Memorial Day Sale. It is a day when one might go to the ocean, or to the mountains, or to the swimming pools and usher in the beginning of the summer season. Of course, the fact that summer does not officially begin until June 21 is beside the point. The point is that very little remembering will take place and that is sad, for memory is important!

And how about those who do remember, how will they do it? Well, there will be the traditional parades down Main Street, of course. And millions of solid, well-fed citizens who do not have the foggiest notion of what a bomb bursting in air really sounds like, or what a rocket’s red glare really looks like, will stand in ballparks across this great nation and before the umpire shouts “Play ball” will proudly stand and sing: “O say can you see . . .” But it seems that we cannot or we do not see.

As recent as a generation ago, it was still fashionable around Memorial Day to hear or to recite a poem written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician in the Canadian Army. After he witnessed the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, only twenty-two years old, he wrote these words:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our places; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling hands, we throw
The Torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Most schoolchildren today have never heard those lines. They do not know to what it is that those words refer. They cannot tell you the location of Flanders fields. At least, part of the reason could be that with the wars since Flanders fields, the words sound a bit passé and overly emotional, even a bit ominous – “If ye break faith with us who die . . .” But is it not, most of all that we hate to acknowledge the enormous cost of their ultimate sacrifice?

So, let us look at the record, lump all the neat white crosses together and add up the score. There have been twelve major wars that we have fought since our founding, starting with the American Revolution and continuing through Operation Enduring Freedom. In those twelve major wars, 1,343,420 men and women have given the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country, and that figure does not include those who died in the twenty or so lesser known wars in which our military has been involved.

What, then, shall we say on this Memorial Day? Shall we say that the sacrifice was stupid and useless and senseless? Shall we, with the ultimate cynicism, write the whole thing off as a bad show? Shall we give each headstone and monument a consoling pat, with the comforting words: “Nice try, buddy. You gave it everything you had. Too bad you didn’t make it?” Shall we say that to those who died?

NO! We dare not say that!

Winston Churchill’s sixth and concluding volume of his memoirs of World War Two is entitled Triumph and Tragedy because, as Churchill states: “. . .so far, the overwhelming victory of the grand alliance has failed to bring peace to an anxious world.”

Yes, there is the triumph, but there is also the tragedy. We have so often broken faith with those who died. Why did they die, these thousands upon thousands under those neat white crosses? So that we can eat apple pie, boo the umpire, and watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July?

Of course not! That is nonsense and unmitigated balderdash!

Those who have died knew, as we must know, that liberty is not a destination, but a journey. Their fight was not just an isolated moment in history. It was part of the mainstream of the human story, a mission of bringing freedom to all of the bound children of God.

Earlier, I quoted John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields. On a Saturday morning in November 1918, two days before the Armistice was declared, a Georgia educator named Moina Michael was reading a magazine that featured McCrae’s poem. She had read the poem many times before, but was transfixed by the words: “To you from failing hands we throw the Torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.” At that moment, Moina Michael made a personal pledge to “keep the faith” and vowed always to wear a red poppy of Flanders fields not only as a sign of remembrance, but also as an emblem for “keeping the faith with all who died.”

Compelled to make a note of this pledge, she hastily scribbled down a poem on the back of an envelope entitled We Shall Keep the Faith. Here are her words:
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders fields.

To keep the faith with all who died and to teach the lessons that they have wrought should be our pledge as well.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

They, and we, are the legacies of an unbroken chain of proud men and women who served their country with honor, who waged war so that we might know peace, who braved hardship so that we might know opportunity, who paid the ultimate price so that we might know freedom.”
-Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States
Memorial Day


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