Why Must We Remember?

It's Memorial Day 2011. As you read this, you've either been to a cookout this weekend or are planning to attend one today, or both, or you've hosted one or will be hosting one today - or both. It's a three-day weekend, so you get an extra day off and you've a short work week ahead of you. It's also the unofficial start of the summer season. Schools are winding down and vacation plans are being made.

It's just another Memorial Day weekend.

Oh, yes, there's that part about remembering the men and women of our armed forces who died serving their country during wartime. More than a million American men and women died on active duty during a time of war, and 655,000 of that number died in battle.

Many of them left to fight in foreign lands and never came home. There are 24 American cemeteries abroad where 124,909 war dead rest in eternal peace. In addition, 6,177 American veterans and others are interred in the Mexico City and Corozal American Cemeteries. The Tablets of the Missing record the more than 94,000 American service members missing in action or buried at sea.

America is often incorrectly described as an empire, but no empire ever rebuilt their vanquished foes as we did and gave them back their land, keeping only enough to bury our sons and daughters. Memorial Day is there to remind us of their sacrifice.

Why is the remembrance important, however? What does it mean to us today in 21st century America?

Did you go to church yesterday? Did you worship? If you went to a friend's home for a cookout, were you able to travel to and fro without restrictions? Did you argue politics or religion with your friends at the cookout without fear? Did you return home safely, secure in your person and your property?

It's called liberty, and our liberty is bought and paid for by the blood shed all around the world by our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard.

World history does not tell us that mankind is predisposed to let people live in liberty. In fact, it tells us that, in the words of Ronald Reagan, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same."

Those who celebrated the first "Decoration Day" in America, the commemoration that became Memorial Day, knew the price of liberty was high. On May 1, 1865, thousands of freed black men, women and children in Charleston, South Carolina, honored the Union dead whose sacrifice gave them their freedom. Yale historian David Blight describes the first observance of Memorial Day:

At 9 a.m. on May 1, a procession stepped off, led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing. The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathered in the cemetery enclosure; a children’s' choir sang 'We'll Rally Around the Flag,' 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. This was their way of saying what the war meant to me and what America means to me. They were now freed men and women.

The events that preceded this one were even more poignant. The site where the ceremony took place was a horse racetrack that had been converted into a prison for Union soldiers. Many of these soldiers died in captivity, and were buried in mass graves. After the war had ended, blacks, many of them newly freed, went to the racetrack and reburied the soldiers properly, erected a fence around the graves and painted the fence.

These blacks didn't know the dead soldiers or their families, nor did those who died know the people whose freedom was secured by their sacrifice. All of them, however, knew that liberty is God's gift to all people, and it is precious enough to give one's life for it.

Of the 179,000 black men who served in the Union army, and the 19,000 who served in the Union navy, 40,000 died during the Civil War. Sixteen black service members received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, and some of them are among the 15 black Medal of Honor recipients, from the Civil War to the Vietnam conflict, buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

As we engage in a fierce debate over the role of government in a republic that was founded on individual liberty, we must remember that too many have died before us for us to let liberty go without a fight.

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. ~ Abraham Lincoln

Never forget that the liberty you enjoy this weekend in so many ways came at a great price. Each generation will be asked to pay that price to keep liberty alive. If we forget that, then liberty will take her place alongside the dead who once defended her.