If Memorial Day of 2020 was unlike any other, Memorial Day of 2021 will represent almost a 180 degree turnabout from the dark days of a year ago. Thanks to the miraculous production of vaccines and plummeting infection and hospitalizations rates, it would appear that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us.
However, as joyful as our leap from the oppression of COVID-19 may be, we are saddened and humbled when we realize that almost 600,000 Americans, a total almost equal to the number of our soldiers killed in all of our foreign wars combined, have succumbed to the virus over the past 15 months.
But as Americans prepare to embark on the great reopening this Memorial Day weekend, marking our freedom from the virus, it is appropriate that we honor the brave men and women who gave their lives in our nation’s wars so that we might enjoy the freedoms that define the American way of life.
Ever since the official inception of the holiday on May 30, 1868, when the practice of decorating the graves of the fallen Union soldiers with flowers, wreaths, and flags officially became recognized by the order of General Logan at Arlington National Cemetery, Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day) has been a time for all Americans to commemorate those who made the Supreme Sacrifice to preserve our freedom.
When Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday of May starting in 1971, the three-day weekend also came to mark the official start of the summer season when we gather for cookouts and other outdoor activities with friends and family.
Amidst the usual festivities of Memorial Day weekend however, we must remember not to take for granted the freedoms that allow us to partake of the American way of life.
Although the worst of the pandemic hopefully is behind us, we still are facing a grave threat to our democracy.
The enemy is not a foreign power or a viral infection.
Rather, it is from within.
It is fair to say that Americans are as disunited as we ever have been since the end of the Civil War itself 156 years ago. The triad of seismic events of the past year — the pandemic, the ensuing economic dislocation, and the endemic racism in our society — exposed the deep fissures in our country that have been lurking beneath the surface for decades and exploded volcano-like over the past 12 months.
Rather than serving to unite us in a common effort to overcome these challenges, they tore us apart even further, culminating with the shameful effort on the part of some to bring to an end the great American experiment of democracy with the events of January 6.
In searching for appropriate words to capture this moment in which we find ourselves, the Gettysburg address that was delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on the site of the battlefield on November 19, 1863, rings most true, both in terms of honoring those who gave their lives in our nation’s wars and for healing the wounds created by the current crises.
We hope our readers take a moment to absorb Lincoln’s words and reflect upon the meaning of Memorial Day, both in terms of our past and our future:
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 battle-field 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.