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Memorial Day 2024: The Last Full Measure

Published in Blog on May 24, 2024 by Jakob Fay

What does Memorial Day mean to you?

Most Americans, we may reasonably assume, would answer that question rather lamely.

Memorial Day, to millions of us, serves as a time for nothing more than shopping and bargains, reminiscent of Black Friday, albeit with lesser sales (and smaller crowds). It’s an opportunity to indulge in barbecues and leisurely gatherings by the pool, akin to an early Fourth of July, minus the pyrotechnics. Above all, Memorial Day offers us the enjoyment of watching the latest summer blockbuster (Cinemark assures us that their movie theater is the “right place” to spend your long weekend).

But, I must confess, these stereotypes about Memorial Day sadden me. The true meaning of Memorial Day, of course, is about honoring the men and women who paid the ultimate price in service to their country—an opportunity we squander when we engross ourselves in idle entertainment.

We ought to instead remember that we are only free today—free to barbecue with friends and entertain ourselves in peace—because somewhere, sometime, some unknown hero valued our liberty above his own safety. Amidst the innocent festivities, we cannot afford to forget that.

Memorial Day ought to remind us of Lincoln’s words in his Gettysburg Address: “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.”

May such brilliant, stirring words find themselves ringing in our ears, echoing in our heads, on Monday. Moreover, may they penetrate our hearts. Are we, like Lincoln, dedicated to the unfinished work that the fallen heroes behind us have thus far so nobly advanced? Are we devoted, truly committed, to that illustrious cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion?

How terrifying a thought that the collective sacrifice of millions before us, in a sense, may fall to waste on our watch if we are not vigilant. Will we let them die in vain; will we permit their sacrifice to deteriorate and fade? We must not. To his dying breath, Lincoln humbly lived out his unshakeable resolve that those men buried six feet down in Gettysburg did not die in vain. Will we do the same?

Memorial Day ought to remind us of Thomas Paine’s words in the “American Crisis”: “THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.”

As Paine saw it, any patriot who dared to stand by his country when the sun set and winter dawned warranted the love and thanks of man and woman for generations to come. We still owe them that debt—a debt of gratitude, affection, and, above all, commitment. Why should men lay down their lives in the fight against hell-like tyranny if we are not willing to take up that mantle—if, because we are summer soldiers and sunshine patriots, we willingly succumb to tyranny?

The choice is ours: will we cherish that celestial gift and the men who died to give it to us? Or, in our apathy and ingratitude, will we prefer the blessings of liberty—tranquility, amusement, pleasure—over liberty itself?

Finally, Memorial Day ought to remind us of U.S. Army Private Martin Treptow and the words found on the flyleaf of his journal, recovered from his fallen body: “America must win this war. Therefore, I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”

Although Treptow’s timeless pledge testifies to his personal bravery and patriotism, it also speaks for countless of Treptow’s slain comrades. Treptow alone articulated those tear-jerking words; thousands have lived (and died) by them.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with enjoying Memorial Day and the long weekend. Our ancestors did not sacrifice their lives for us to reside in a perpetual state of mourning for their loss. But God forbid that we should stifle the crushing weight of all that we owe them through an endless string of mind-numbing entertainments. After all that they’ve done for us, we, at a minimum, owe it to them to pass freedom—more or less intact—down to the next generation.

That is our mission and duty. That is the true purpose of Memorial Day—to highly resolve that these honored dead shall not have died in vain—that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Now, will you answer that call? Will you storm the castles, drive out the enemy, and refuse to surrender, no matter the cost? Will you offer your last full measure of devotion in memory of those winter soldiers who worked, saved, sacrificed, and endured for the good of their country?

Indeed, as Ronald Reagan concluded his Memorial Day Address two score and two years ago: “I can't claim to know the words of all the national anthems in the world, but I don't know of any other that ends with a question and a challenge as ours does: Does that flag still wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave? That is what we must all ask.”

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