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Editorial: The Meaning of Memorial Day

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans have made material and mortal sacrifices. However, the last several months only partially put into perspective the supreme act of service, one that cannot be comprehended by us civilians: death on the battlefield, i.e., ultimate homage to the American republic and our founding values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This point was made by President James Garfield, then a congressman from Ohio who served in the Union Army during the Civil War: "We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue."

A scene from the Revolutionary War (

Recognizing and venerating the immortal patriotism and virtue of our war dead, as President Garfield so aptly put it, is the point of Memorial Day. Something tells me that Americans will have an easier time recognizing this than in years past. After weeks of social deprivation, broken routines, and perhaps financial stress or personal loss, the Memorial-Day barbecues will be less merry and the consideration of our war dead more solemn and contemplative.

George Washington in prayer (

While less than festive, this approach is consistent with the spirit of Memorial Day and also the statute underpinning the holiday, which proclaims today as an opportunity for "the people of the United States to unite in prayer." Just as I found the mood at Fort McHenry, Fort Sumter, and Gettysburg reserved and respectful of the hallowed grounds, the United States as a whole should be considered a hallowed ground, one that is free and plentiful only because of our war dead.

As we engage in our Memorial-Day reflection on the millions of lives lost in service of the American republic, we ought to consider the hundreds of thousands of men who died combatting the first moral evil of the 20th century, the Axis: the German Third Reich, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. Also on the top of our minds should be the thousands of lives lost in the war against the second moral evil of the 20th century, communism, in various spheres of battle. The mostly-forgotten post-Great War conflict between Americans and Bolsheviks in northern Russia comes to mind, as do the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Winfield Scott commanders Mexico City (Wikipedia)

Our Memorial-Day remembrance should also contemplate the lives lost in every other conflict since the Declaration of Independence, even those that receive a cursory mention in today's history curricula: the Revolutionary War, when humble militiamen ordained our republic; the War of 1812, when we fully dispensed ourselves of the British albatross; the Mexican-American War, which allowed for the admission of the Southwest to the Union; the Civil War, when the moral stain of slavery was expunged and our founding truths were applied to all; and the Spanish-American War, when we liberated Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spanish oppression.

Battle of Lake Erie -- War of 1812 (

In modernity, thousands of lives have been lost in the Gulf War and in Afghanistan and Iraq, where our military continues to defend the homeland against terrorism and apply our founding values to the Middle East.

As President Garfield said, "For love of country [our war dead] accepted death." Our reciprocal responsibility is to offer our humble, unconditional gratitude to those who have perished in veneration of the everlasting promise that is the American republic. Without these modern-day knights in shining armor, we would be without a nation and without a meaningful creed.

God bless the war dead. Happy Memorial Day.

Editor's note: The vignettes featured in this editorial are featured on the National-Currency notes of the Series of 1875, which are regarded by collectors as some of the most artistically potent in American history.

All unsigned FDL Review content is the product of Declan M. Hurley.