On Memorial Day we remember with gratitude all those who offered their lives in brave service to our country and its ideals.
We also experience a double kind of sorrow. We mourn those who lost their lives or who were so wounded in body or spirit that the scars have never disappeared. At the same time, we must say to our veterans that we are sorry that we as a nation have never lived up to the two great values for which they fought: freedom and equality.
And yet we are proud of so many things about America that assure us we’re striving for freedom and equality and will never give up. We’re far from perfect but we’re on the way, despite many ups and downs along the path.
This afternoon I watched again a PBS special on the battle for Iwo Jima. It first aired last year but is worth watching a second or a third or fourth time. It will remind us of our cause for a healthy pride.
One of the most amazing scenes was an interview with one of the few surviving Japanese defenders of the island. He had been badly wounded, rescued by an American soldier, and given life-saving medical attention. This is what he said:
I was rescued by an American who showed no animosity toward me. I was his enemy but he saved me. I wonder if a Japanese soldier would have done the same for a wounded American. I don’t think so. I think if the situation were reversed, a Japanese soldier would have left his enemy to die. The American fighting man was unique. There is something about the national character that makes them merciful. It is to an American that I owe my life. And I wish to thank them in person.
There is a fourth quality which I hope is part of Memorial Day for us all: Resolve. I hope we can commit ourselves again and again to maintaining a high national character. I’m afraid we’ve not done well in the last half-century. We fired randomly on whole villages in Viet Nam. We carpet bombed whole cities in Iraq, not out of desperation but merely as a shortcut. We tortured prisoners of war in Iraq.
Our resolve is highly important in this election season. Will we commit ourselves to graciousness or selfishness, to mercy or to meanness, to love or to hate? Will we remember that the two ideas which have made America great are freedom and equality? Or will we instead limit freedom and deny equality altogether? Will we continue to be “the land of the free and home of the brave” or will we cower behind walls and fight to keep desperate refugees from challenging our compassion? Will we strive to deserve the respect of our international friends or will we choose instead the cheap alternative, intimidation?
This weekend is a time of remembering yesterday’s greatness. November is the time to commit ourselves to tomorrow’s greatness — a greatness of character.