You can see them at many grave sites where the War of Independence was fought, and the battlefields of 1812, and the Civil War. You can see them at the Alamo. You can see them arrayed now in rows of crosses and stars of David below the purpled hills of Anzio, and on the long sweeps of the green fields of Normandy. You may find them still at Flanders field, and all across the Pacific islands and atolls.
This nation is thought to be entirely future-oriented. In fact, we look backward very often, like a rotating wheel upon a stagecoach turning down again and again to fundamentals. We ride the revolutions up and away, and then ride back to first principles.
Memorial Day is one of many annual occasions to do so, publicly and liturgically, with prayers and patriotic discourses.
I have always loved to learn the basic facts about our dead. Age, hometown, names of spouse and children. I try to imagine what their lives, untethered from early death, might have become. Insurance salesmen like my father? Harried doctors in rural or urban clinics? Teachers? Pharmacists, lawyers, engineers, truckers, pilots? I wonder, would they ever think that their years spent at war were wasted? Or would they think that these had been the most meaningful of all the things they ever did? Or would they have wanted not to think back on the sufferings and horrors of those difficult war years?
In any case, their deaths put me in mind of a Marine lieutenant colonel these very days in Anbar Province, Iraq, on his second tour of duty there (the first having been in 2004–2005). Very much alive, and very much committed to his mission, this brave man explains that he faces what he faces today on behalf of his eleven-year-old son. The Marine father has seen up close the cruelty, barbarity, and ceaseless ferocity of the enemy of free Western peoples. He believes his job now is to defeat them there. And to defeat them soundly enough so that another generation of Americans will not have to return to do the job again. He says he does it so that he can look in his mirror in the morning and see a man faithful to his principles no matter what the cost to himself. If not him, then who? If not now, when? If not here, where?
Such a day as this is not a day to argue politics—above all the politics of the present much-disputed war. The sunlit point this Marine officer’s life does bring out, however, is the connection between Memorial Days and first principles.
As Lincoln said at Gettysburg in 1863, not long after some 49,000 Americans lay dead, wounded, or missing in just three days of fighting, the war dragged on:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war . . . . But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who fought here have consecrated far above our poor power to add or detract. The world . . . can never forget what they did here . . . . 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, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Death, remembrance, resolve, and a new birth of still living, still beloved, first principles. That is what Memorial Day is about.
“The words under God” which Lincoln inserted into his Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest of his public prayers, he almost certainly picked up from his perusal of the General Orders that General George Washington issued almost daily to his troops, which Lincoln had studied, in order to learn how to give such orders himself.
On July 2, 1776, the day independence was first voted into effect, and on July 9, 1776, when copies of the Declaration were finally in print and distributed to all the men of Washington’s command, for public reading with the armies drawn up in serried order, Washington addressed his troops with the exclamation that now they, alone, “under God,” stood between the cause of freedom and its extinction. So they should hear the Declaration with close attention, throbbing hearts, and steely resolve to do their duty.
Back to first principles. It is always good for nations, as well as for individuals, to go back to first principles—to take fire again from the fire that plainly burned in so many brave others who cast their lives upon the flames of patriotic duty.
God bless such men and women. God bless the people—and the principles—of the United States. And God bless the cause of freedom in every darkened quarter of the world.
Michael Novak has been a member of the First Things board since its founding and was the winner of the Templeton Prize in 1994. He has held the George Frederick Jewett Chair at the American Enterprise Institute since 1980. His recent articles and pathways to his books can be found at www.michaelnovak.net .