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The debt we owe

But do we remember?


Volunteers place flags at headstones in Fort Logan National Cemetery on May 29, 2022, in Sheridan, Colo. Associated Press/Photo by David Zalubowski

The debt we owe
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The American Civil War lasted for four long years between 1861 and 1865. Somewhere between 620,000 and 750,000 men on both sides of the conflict died of disease, wounds, or were killed outright on the battlefields. Even before the war was over, citizens of both the North and the South were honoring their war dead in cemeteries and churchyards by strewing flowers on their graves to honor their sacrifices. On May 5, 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a veterans’ association made up of former Union soldiers under the leadership of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, issued a formal proclamation that established May 30 of each year as the official day for the decoration of war graves. This was the beginning of what we now call Memorial Day.

After the First World War, Memorial Day became a day to remember all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the nation, not just those who fought and died in the Civil War. On May 11, 1950, a joint resolution of Congress (36 U.S. Code § 116 - Memorial Day) declared that May 30 would be Memorial Day. (It was amended in 1968 to the “last Monday in May.”) The resolution further called on the president to issue an annual proclamation calling on all American citizens to pray for peace, along with the American media “to join in observing Memorial Day and the period of prayer.” When Logan issued the original GAR proclamation, he said that it was to remember “tenderly the memory of our heroic dead who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes.”

Nowadays, the common cultural understanding of Memorial Day is that it is the “unofficial start of summer.” Many folks see the last Monday of May as not much more than a day off from work and an opportunity to fire up the grill. We often think of Memorial Day as representing the peak of gas prices, with lots of people hitting the road to head for long weekends in the mountains or the beach. Tourist season begins on Memorial Day and lasts till Labor Day. Ironically, a lot of Americans have completely forgotten what they are supposed to remember.

Factor in all the scare talk about Christian nationalism and Americans who fear the label will be reluctant to show any traditional displays of patriotism on Memorial Day. What is Memorial Day for, if not for open and unashamed patriotic expression? What are we remembering on Memorial Day?

Patriotism is expressed through gratitude for real people who made actual sacrifices so that you and I might enjoy tangible blessings.

We should not be too hard on those who forget the purpose of Memorial Day. Some have probably never known that meaning. Furthermore, it is in our nature to forget the past and the reasons why we enjoy the blessings we have in the present. The point of Memorial Day is for the living to take time to prayerfully remember those who have died in the service of our country. We observe Memorial Day exactly because we are prone to forgetting. That is why it is important to consistently be reminded that the last Monday of May is not just day for hot dogs. It is a day to remember and celebrate those who paid for the national blessings we enjoy with their lives. Those who “made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes” deserve to be remembered and honored, and we have been reminding ourselves to do so for over 150 years.

Patriotism rightly understood is the celebration of concrete things, not merely abstractions. Yes, it is fitting to commemorate our founding ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. After all, the United States is the first nation to be founded on ideals, rather than blood and soil. But patriotism is expressed through gratitude for real people who made actual sacrifices so that you and I might enjoy tangible blessings—and hand those blessings down to our children and grandchildren. I am the man that I am in part because real soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines laid down their lives facing their enemies and defeating them.

Everyone should read Eugene B. Sledge’s memoir of his experiences fighting as a Marine in the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. His book is entitled With the Old Breed, and he dedicated it to his company commander, Capt. Andrew A. Haldane. Known affectionately by his men as “Ack Ack,” Captain Haldane was beloved by his men for the cheerful, selfless, and uninterrupted attention he paid to every individual Marine in the company. Haldane was killed instantly by a sniper during the fighting on Peleliu. Reading Sledge’s memoir gives one the feeling of familiarity with Haldane, and many others who lost their lives fighting for their country in unspeakably miserable conditions thousands of miles from home.

Memorial Day is a reminder that patriotism is about love for country, but not “country” as an abstraction. As patriots, we express love and devotion to our people—our families, local associations, neighborhoods, towns, counties, states, and nation. The men and women who sacrificed their lives did so for the sake of their people—in other words, they died for us. Let us fittingly honor them. We owe them that, and much more.

This column has been corrected to reflect that Congress didn’t designate the last Monday in May as Memorial Day until 1968.


John D. Wilsey

John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history and philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a research fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute.


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