Every Memorial Day — what my parents called Decoration Day — we are reminded of the amazing sacrifices (Lincoln’s “last full measure of devotion”) made by so many so that we could live and live free. We celebrate those sacrifices, as well we should (Lincoln’s “it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this”), and we do so in a variety of ways. Below is a picture of my son-in-law marching in the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C. on Monday as a member of the U.S. Air Force Ceremonial Brass.
Many of the celebrations are much more solemn, but all are at least tinged with sadness and longing — honoring the dead and resolving “that these dead shall not have died in vain.” Our hope is that we may all experience “a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Every time I visit our nation’s capital (which I do fairly often since two of my children live and work there), I make it a point to visit the Lincoln Memorial, where I sit and read the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, the words of which are chiseled on the walls.
I am always moved and resolve to do better.
Our national resolve was never more thoroughly tested than by what Lincoln called the “great contest.” As he so eloquently put it, “[b]oth parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” Those last four words are as understated as they are devastating.
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
That man could really write. More importantly, he had a full sense of purpose. He knew who he was and what he needed to do.
In plainer (if no less eloquent) language, Col. Joshua Chamberlain makes similar points (“the idea that we all have value”) in this famous speech from Gettysburg, the film adaptation of Michael Shaara’s wonderful The Killer Angels. “We are an army out to set other men free.”
“Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was.”
At some level, all of us build our lives on ideas and ideals. What are yours?