As we celebrate Memorial Day, what does it mean to be “worthy of sacrifice,” to be equal to the task of living in a way that makes loss of millions of American lives on countless battlefields for our freedom worth that terrible cost? The answer is simple, and complex.
The simple part is that every day we draw a breath in this free country, we should pause – in a morning or evening prayer, time with the flag or in silence – to quietly give thanks for those young men and women who step up, have always stepped up, to defend that free air, our core freedoms, at great cost.
These core freedoms are easily taken for granted, even by the thoughtful. We all drift into imagining that they would exist without the sacrifice, that those who wear the uniform and die might have lived. The truth is that freedom is always under attack, and these fallen are the “but for” cause of our freedom.
On this point, a few rock-hard examples. In America, we can openly criticize our president, members of congress, legislators, governors, mayors, and each other if we wish, take one another to task for failure to live to the ideals, standards, law, or some other failing – without facing prison, torture, or death.
In many countries around the world, freedoms of speech, assembly, worship, grievance, internal and external travel, never mind freedom to be free from unfair captivity, imprisonment, state torture, or to remove leaders by election or otherwise for corruption, is just non-existent.
Among nations without one or more of these core freedoms are countries that see themselves our equal, or quarrel with freedoms we allow one another in our self-governing republic. Large and small, they include China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, Laos, even NATO ally Turkey, half of South and Central America, much of Africa, the Middle East, and post-Soviet Republics.
So, in the simplest way, we honor those who have made our lives possible through the loss of their lives – given their lives for us, for America – by remembering, clear-headedly, regularly, and with an awareness that we are blessed, our lives and freedom preserved, by what they did.
But that, in the end, is not enough. A fleeting thank you, and back to business as usual, an offhand nod to flags in the cemetery, does not really cut it. Those are tough words to write, but we know this is true.
The larger – more complex – answer to the question “what does it mean to be worthy of sacrifice” is that we must look around us and ask how we can apply forward those sacrifices, how we can best use freedoms made possible by the fallen? Not a new question, it is hard.
In one sense, just by raising a family to appreciate these freedoms, respecting them when used by others, using them ourselves, we do this. We also do this by giving to others, serving as a mentor, friend, teacher, coach, just living with an inner ticker that is focused on others.
This is the kind of thing we imagine the fallen might have done, had they lived – loved their families, learned over time, contributed in civilian ways as they did on the field of battle. By doing what they did not have the chance to, we draw ourselves up, strive to be worthy.
But there is more. Even if we do not sign up for war, do not think our best contribution involves military service, the need is high to serve – in all of us. We are our best selves, and we honor those who have fallen the best we can, when we focus on service to others – as they did.
In the end, we can only do as St. Paul advised, “fight the good fight” – knowing that, even if they never uttered these words exactly, many who fell for us on the battlefield knew this spirit.
Somehow, it seems fitting to quote St. Paul on Memorial Day, of all days. The spirit of the man flows down through time, his sentiments and practical distillations echoing in our day.
Find your way of contributing, and do it fully – or as St. Paul wrote, “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart.” Elsewhere, he wrote: “In everything, give thanks.” Then: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
But perhaps the most fitting tribute is that offered by John, at 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” We may never be called to do that as those who fell for us did in battle, but we may yet be called to do this in a longer way, over time.
In short, to be worthy of what has been given is to think hard and regularly, aim to be equal to the sacrifice, and whenever asked to step up, do it. Only by trying to be worthy, do we succeed.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman2 for AMAC.