We memorialize our heroes not to lionize the fallen, but to remind ourselves that self-government, inalienable rights, and the American way of life require constant vigilance and renewal. We live in a time that has forgotten “the growing good of the world . . . is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unmarked tombs.”
While recovering from shoulder surgery a few weeks ago, I decided to re-watch one of my favorite television series of all time, HBO’s Band of Brothers.
As is the case with all powerful pieces of art and literature, the series left a different impression the second time around. It is difficult to process the fact that when it premiered on September 9, 2001, the world was two days away from entering a new chapter of geopolitical struggle and strife. It is disorienting to realize most Americans watching the first episode had never heard of Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban when it aired on a September Sunday evening in early 2001.
This was also the first time I watched the series in the wake of The 1619 Project, the elevation of Critical Race Theory out of niche university seminars and into the broader political culture, and the transmigration of Colin Kaepernick from NFL stardom to Leftist icon. Whatever else one thinks of these developments of the Left, they have certainly yielded more self-flagellation from the body politic in the past few years than self-reflection, especially for the young.
Which brings us to the meaning of Memorial Day.
For those of us safely anchored into a serene life of peace and ordinary aspirations, who sleep in warms beds without worry of nourishment or subsistence, whose worries and anxieties rarely swivel around issues of life and death or liberation and enslavement, comprehending the totalizing sacrifice of those who fought and died in order to perpetuate the highest principles of American civilization is an almost impossible task. In the final episode of Band of Brothers, there is an extraordinary scene that encapsulates this generational chasm between those who fought for freedom and those who merely shrug today.
The soldier’s words as he considered explaining his experiences in the war to family and friends back home are haunting:
“Back, back home in Virginia . . . Well . . . I just don’t rightly know how I’m gonna explain all of this. You see, I’ve . . . I’ve seen . . . I’ve seen.”
But trying to “explain all of this” is exactly what we must do on this Memorial Day, especially in a time when our problem is not that we have forgotten the uniqueness of the American Experiment or the justness of our national cause, but that too many modern Americans frankly never understood it in the first place. The average young American today knows more vogue tropes about “privilege” and “oppression” than they do miracles at Philadelphia, rededications at Gettysburg, or the human slaughter on the beaches of Normandy.
In 1838, Abraham Lincoln was only 28-years old but was already wise to observe, as he did in his much underappreciated “Lyceum Address,” that the greatest danger to American political institutions and principles would not come from a foreign nemesis or invading army. Civic decay, he warned, would come from within. And decay it has. A 2014 survey revealed only one in three Americans were able to name all three branches of government. It is disturbing that few Americans have ever heard of George Marshall or Henry Clay. It is even more disturbing that bright 15-year-olds have never heard of Harry Truman and struggle to answer what country America declared its independence from.
Instead, much of social science education today is oriented around “critical thinking skills” instead of deep knowledge about the origins and development of the American polity itself. As Americans have abandoned the space of the pew and severed the ties of community, politics has assumed a mantle of personal meaning it was never intended to carry. Politics has become the arena of cultural warriors, political gladiators, and petty provocateurs. We have poisoned ourselves, in part because we have no idea who “We The People” were intended to be.
And so, we memorialize sacrifice not merely to elevate those who have fallen. We venerate not as proof of our own national greatness.
No, we honor, celebrate, and remember in our own time so that we may understand how just nations nobly renew themselves, and the precious inheritance we have done so little to earn. We seek to deeply, authentically, passionately grasp that human justice is more than an artifice and cultural construct, more than the institution of whimsical policies, more than exercising liberty without hopes of approbation or fears of condemnation. We memorialize to remind ourselves of Walt Whitman’s truest and most patriotic words, “that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” We celebrate the fallen because President Reagan was right, “…we must try to honor them—not for their sakes alone, but for our own.”
There is a raw and I believe powerful desire on the part of many citizens today to become a more serious people. Our soldiers lived and died because they were engaged in the most serious statecraft of all: the preservation of the democratic way of life. Pericles summoned and gave voice to this spirit of democratic renewal in the Funeral Oration. Lincoln did the same at Gettysburg. FDR’s Third Inaugural Address is an impassioned defense of democracy and its superiority against the rising tide of fascism.
If our heroes and these speeches seem distant to us today it is because we have become an unserious people. If their sacrifices seem to emanate from a form of intense patriotism that seems untenable to us today, it is because we have become a people willing toward only frivolous conversation and thought.. If we listen to their words and study their agonies and the first thought we have is how we would have found a way to avoid Normandy, the Marne, or Pakchon, it is because we have become an apathetic people. We have a choice.
Basketball coach Rick Pitino, in a famous fit of frustration, famously observed, “Larry Bird is not walking through that door.” Neither is Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass or Ronald Reagan. The renewal of our way of life is up to us. Memorializing those who successfully carried the torch of human freedom in their own time is a necessary first step. Will we take it?
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.