This week at Arlington National Cemetery, in keeping with an annual tradition that takes place on the Thursday before Memorial Day, soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry placed American flags at over a quarter million graves of fallen American servicemen and women. The soldiers will keep a continuous watch through the weekend to ensure the flags remain standing.
Nearby, other members of the 3rd Infantry will continue their solemn vigil at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They guard the memorial 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Under the marble tomb lies the body of an unknown American soldier killed in World War I. On the face of the monument are the words:
HERE RESTS IN
KNOWN BUT TO GOD
This Memorial Day weekend, we remember all the American soldiers who have died for this country.
It will be a busy holiday weekend for most of us. But at some point between the backyard barbecues, the parades, and the sparklers, take a moment to look at one of the many American flags that will be flying. Let it remind you of the little flags on the graves at Arlington, and say a prayer for those Americans who paid the ultimate price for freedom on battlefields both near and far, at places with names like Ticonderoga, Antietam, Meuse-Argonne, Tarawa, and Fallujah.
As we remember those who have fallen in the line of duty, we can also recognize that Memorial Day is about more than just remembering these honored dead. It is also about remembering what they died for, and about re-dedicating ourselves to those principles for which they made the ultimate sacrifice.
Abraham Lincoln recognized this important truth, and expressed it in the Gettysburg Address. He recognized that we, the living, bestow the greatest honor on those who died for our country not only by remembering them on a designated holiday, but by committing ourselves anew to live our own lives defending and promoting the great ideas upon which this country was founded and for which those men and women laid down their lives.
This November will mark the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. We shouldn’t wait until then to re-acquaint ourselves with the words that Lincoln uttered a century and a half ago at the site of the bloodiest battle in American history. The speech Lincoln gave that day is the most poignant and moving tribute to a nation’s fallen warriors that has ever been delivered in the history of mankind. It rightly belongs as much to Memorial Day as to any other day.
So this weekend, as we remember the dead, we can also go a step further in honoring them and heed the exhortation of Abraham Lincoln to increase our devotion to the cause for freedom, the cause for which they died.
We can resolve to remember that the defense of liberty is an ongoing battle, and to recommit ourselves to that struggle in our everyday lives.
We can acknowledge, as Lincoln did, that Divine Providence played a role in the founding of this country and that the ideas of self-government, freedom, and equality aren’t just American things, but that they are good things – God’s things.
We can teach our children that those who have given their lives for this country have not done so in vain, that we ought never to take our freedom for granted, and that if something is worth dying for, it’s worth living for.
Maybe it’s been a while since you last read the Gettysburg Address, or maybe all you ever knew of it was the famous first line, “Four score and seven years ago…” Maybe you even had it committed to memory once. Maybe you still do. Whatever the case, read it again this weekend – for the first time or the five hundredth. It’s short, and only takes a moment.
The Gettysburg Address
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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.